Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
Correspondent Barnaby McEwan sent me the following message:
I've just seen the crassest stereotyping of Indians in a TV ad for a UK train company, Virgin Trains. The slogan -- I can hardly believe I'm typing this -- is "man who go on big train have big idea".
The ad campaign's called 'Apache':
Virgin Trains launches new brand positioning and major marketing campaign as passenger numbers continue to rise
The UK's biggest long distance train operator kicks off a major marketing offensive this week in a bid to win even more passengers to its already expanding business.
Following the success of the recent "Return of the Train" campaign, Virgin Trains is seeing year-on-year passenger growth of 11 percent on both its CrossCountry and West Coast franchises. At the same time passengers are increasingly taking advantage of low cost tickets with sales of Value Advance fares up by 47 percent on CrossCountry and 43 percent on West Coast over last year.
With significant successes and improvements across all aspects of the business, Virgin Trains is embracing a new positioning of 'delivering the most valuable travel time in the UK'. This vision combines the benefits of Virgin Trains' new offering and an understanding of modern customer priorities, offering efficiency and speed but also quality of time spent travelling. A refreshment of brand identity has also been undertaken, incorporating a new logo, typography and a brand framework built to re-affirm consistency across channels and reflect the positive development of the product. This also culminated in the creation of a new 'Love every second' brand line to articulate the idea of most valuable travel time.
The marketing campaign focuses on the issue of time, its importance to all of us and how we can use it to best effect whilst travelling. As part of a multi-media campaign, this is brought to life in an epic 80s TV and cinema commercial, "Apache", that shows how the train environment can lead to a brilliant idea that everyone will want to get their hands on. In a spoof of the cowboy and Indian genre of film, Apache Indians make a dramatic attempt to board the moving train but fail to steal the brilliant idea that our customer has had whilst onboard. The TV runs nationwide from 17 September until 15 October, and it will also be seen in cinemas nationwide with a total audience of over 10 million.
In the ad, stereotypical savages on horseback attack a train but -- silly savages! -- they don't realise it's not the old-fashioned kind they can leap onto from the saddle. They slide down the metal sides of the train and fall off! Ho ho ho! Toward the end, an Indian wordlessly demands through the window glass a book that a white traveller is reading. The traveller refuses and the Indian menacingly raises his tomahawk to smash the glass but -- phew! -- the nasty savage is wiped off the side of the train by the front apron of a tunnel. Oh, my aching sides.
I doubt whether Virgin would have commissioned a campaign featuring goose-stepping Germans or Pacific-island cannibals stirring a giant cooking pot. I'm boycotting Virgin until it apologises.
Here's the ad itself:
Virgin Train "Apache" Ad
Correspondent writes Virgin
A UK Yankee forum shows several reactions to the Virgin ad, including this letter submitted by McEwan:
Re: American Indians on Virgin Commercial
Here's the letter I sent:
To Whom It May Concern,
I recently saw an ad for Virgin Trains that was shockingly racist in its portrayal of Native Americans. I literally could not believe it when I saw it. You had a white man on the train, who was supposed to be intelligent — hence his 'big idea', and the Native Americans were portrayed as stupid, specifically the part where they attempt to jump on the train. In addition to that, the gross stereotyping, the savage, violent 'Indians' in their war paint, whooping and hollering and running down everyone in their way, 'on the war path' so to speak, and the implication that they were thieves (wanting to steal the white man's ideas), was astounding. I cannot believe you got away with that. Would you have gotten away with it had it been an African tribe, or Arabs? I think not. To add insult to injury, the parting shot is of the leader of the war party serving tea! So what are we to take from this, white men are smart, intelligent, and Native Americans are stupid, violent, thieving, and servants? Oh, and the tag line, couched in faux 'Indian speak' was also quite offensive. Would you have had used a bad Japanese accent were the characters Asian, or perhaps mocked a Pakistani or Indian accent?
I am not normally a 'PC' or Politically Correct minded person, but I do think a little cultural sensitivity is in order, which in this instance Virgin has spectacularly failed to display. I get the idea of the play on 'Cowboys and Indians,' but surely at this point it is understood how racist those portrayals which the ad aped were, and that it's not a clever advertising pitch to employ, but a grossly offensive one.
I hope the advertising department at Virgin gets a clue before it goes insulting people they may not be familiar with. It is certainly not a way to sell the Virgin experience as 'superior' — unless, of course, there is an underlying meaning to that superiority, in which case, thanks but no thanks.
Date: 20 September 2006 11:09:46 BDT
To: Barnaby McEwan
Dear Mr McEwan,
Thank you very much for your recent e-mail.
I am sorry to hear that you are unhappy with our current TV advertisement. I do appreciate your concerns about the advertisement's content, and would like to apologise for any offence caused. We wanted to demonstrate that time spent on a Virgin train is time well spent. We brought this to life in a TV advertisement that shows how the train environment can lead to brilliant ideas that everyone will want to get their hands on.
I should take this opportunity to explain that the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC) approved the script for the current advertisement. The BACC is a specialist body responsible for the pre-transmission examination and clearance of television advertisements. All advertisements being transmitted as a national television campaign on UK terrestrial and satellite channels must be submitted to the BACC for approval.
The advertisement spoofs the 'cowboy and Indian' genre of film, and the title 'Man who go on big train have big idea' is also a tongue-in-cheek reference to this genre of film. This title was specifically discussed with, and subsequently fully approved by, the BACC. As the BACC approved the script, no further approvals were required.
We did seek a Native American representative organisation in the UK, but had no response. In addition, the main actor in the advert was a Native American who did not feel that the film was denigrating in any way. We also commissioned research with 320 members of the general public, to flesh out any potential issues with the film.
Thank you for taking the time to contact us regarding this matter. I do hope that the campaign will not deter you from using our services in the future, and that we can welcome you aboard again soon.
The media picks up the story
Virgin ad's offensive to injuns
By JOHN COLES
September 23, 2006
AN American Indian living in Britain is on the warpath over "offensive" new TV ads for Virgin Trains.
Steve Pattinson, 47, a member of the Shoshone tribe, is even threatening to SIOUX Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson.
Steve, whose Indian name Bia'sape means Big Stomach, claims he was horrified when he saw the latest "mocking" advert.
It features a whooping, horse-riding Indian warrior who tries to board a speeding Virgin train — but he keeps bouncing off.
He then attempts to shatter the glass window with his tomahawk — but is foiled when he rides into the wall of a tunnel entrance.
Steve, who was brought up on a reservation in Idaho, said: "The advert is sickening. It's straight out of the dark ages of cowboy and Indian films.
"It's trying to show us as savages or dumb-ass Indians who are going to be wiped off the face of the Earth because we don't belong here. As long as people such as Mr Branson keep bringing up these stereotypes, we will still face prejudice."
Engineer Steve, who lives in Melksham, Wilts, is taking advice about whether to start legal proceedings.
Using his native Shoshone language, he sent a message to Sir Richard: "Richard Branson, Mehwe neetsiigwa-nehen Newemai deasen mehwe wisa-utu."
Translation: "You have hurt our Indian people and you should pay."
Divorced dad-of-three Steve came to the UK from America when he was 11, but still qualifies for US federal aid as a member of the Shoshone tribe.
When the advert was first screened on September 17, the Advertising Standards Authority received 18 complaints. A spokesman said: "At the moment, we are just logging the complaints.
"We will decide in the next few days if there are grounds for a formal investigation."
Virgin Trains said the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre approved the script and tried to ensure no offence was caused.
He said: "The ad spoofs the cowboy and Indian genre and is quite tongue-in-cheek.
"We investigated if there were any American Indian groups in the UK but didn't find any.
"The actor in the ad is a native American — and he didn't feel it was denigrating."
There are estimated to be 25 native Americans in the UK and 300 in Europe.
In addition to the other problems, the Apaches normally didn't attack trains on horseback. If it happened at all, this kind of attack happened mainly on the Plains.
But "Apache" is the universal signifier of "violent, warlike Indian," of course. This ad explicitly trades on the concept of Indians as brutes, thugs, and killers.
To sum it up, the Virgin ad freezes the Apache people in the distant past—the middle of the 19th century, to be precise. This isn't cowboys and Indians, it's modern Westerners vs. primitive Indians.
Incidentally, the stereotypes in Coles's article—"injuns," "warpath," "Sioux" (for "sue"), "Big Stomach"—are almost as offensive as the train ad. In not-so-subtle ways, Cole is belittling the protests against the ad.
Or as correspondent Pumaclaw put it:
"Divorced dad-of-three Steve came to the UK from America when he was 11, but still qualifies for US federal aid as a member of the Shoshone tribe."
This is really a rich one and shows you the bias of the author of that article. I don't know who's more racist, the "advert" or John Coles.
The authorities cop out
Virgin Rail Group Ltd t/a Virgin Trains
North Wing Offices
Number of complaints: 83
A TV ad for Virgin Trains showed a white man sitting in a first class train carriage, writing in a notebook; the train was 'attacked' by a group of Native Americans on horse back. The 'attack' on the train failed. At the end of the ad, one Native American was shown serving drinks on the train. Text at the end of the ad stated "MAN WHO GO ON BIG TRAIN HAVE BIG IDEA".
The complainants, some of whom were Native Americans, found the ad offensive because they said it was racist and used an outdated cultural stereotype of Native American people. Several complainants believed the ad trivialised Native American history and the treatment of Native American people.
BCAP TV Advertising Code: 6.1;6.6
Rainey Kelly, the advertising agency, responded on behalf of Virgin Rail. They said it was not their intention to cause offence. They explained that the ad was intended to be a humorous and affectionate homage to the 'Cowboy and Indian' film genre, which was in keeping with Virgin Rails theme of making ads in the style of classic films.
Rainey Kelly said the ad intended to depict that a valuable idea could be conceived while working on a train. The ad also depicted, in a fantastical way, that the idea might be so good that someone could try to steal it. They argued that many Western films contained scenes where trains were held up or attacked.
Rainey Kelly stated they employed an independent market research agency to obtain consumers views on the ad. They claimed that only 2% of the respondents (or six out of 300) thought the ad was racist and that most respondents saw it as intended: a tongue-in-cheek, humorous take on the classic Western genre of film.
The Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC) said they worked very closely with Rainey Kelly throughout the pre-clearance stage to ensure the ad would not offend Native Americans.
Although the BACC believed the ad used an outmoded view of 'Indians, they argued that viewers would realise that the ad was a spoof of the Western genre, not a comment on contemporary Native Americans. The BACC stated that the type face used for the text "MAN WHO GO ON BIG TRAIN HAVE BIG IDEA" was stylised to resemble the type face in classic 'Wanted' posters often seen in Westerns.
The ASA acknowledged that Rainey Kelly had taken care to consult some consumers for their opinion about the ad. We noted the ad was in keeping with Virgin Rails recent campaigns in the style of classic films and considered that, because it was set in a fictional and imitative context, the ad was likely to be viewed as a parody of Western films, not as a comment on Native American history or contemporary Native Americans. We concluded that, although some viewers might find the ad in poor taste, it was unlikely to be seen as racist or as trivialising Native Americans and their history and was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.
We investigated the ad under CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rules 6.1(Offence) and 6.6 (Harmful or negative stereotypes) but did not find it in breach.
No further action necessary.
This is pretty much a joke response. Repeating old stereotypes justifies the ad? That means the only time the ASA would ban a Native ad is if it invented a stereotype. Since a stereotype involves a repeated pattern by definition, there's basically no such thing as a new stereotype. So the ASA will never ban a stereotypical Native ad.
How about an ad showing minstrel singers in blackface? The same "logic" would apply. The company wouldn't mean to cause offense—it said so itself. The ad would be a homage to or a spoof of old minstrel shows. Viewers would be unlikely to see it as a commentary on contemporary blacks.
Get the picture? The ASA sure doesn't. Its "reasoning" perpetuates racism by claiming it's not racist to repeat someone's racism.
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