Korean Sociological Image #10: “Blackface”

Cyon Black and White AdverisementSpare a thought for the hapless LG Cyon marketing department. Because after 12 years in the business, it must be really difficult to think of interesting names for new phones.

No, really: how else to explain the singularly uninspired choice of “Black and White” for the latest, well, black and white LV-7400 phones to come out? Sure, the likes of “Lollipop” and “Ice Cream” may hardly have been all that creative either, but at least they spawned quirky and memorable advertising campaigns, whereas this series of advertisements for the LV-7400 seems dull, uninspired, and above all too literal. In fairness though, they do provide an instant and dramatic representation of the product, and the commercial itself has a mild eroticism and sensuality to it that compels you to look more closely.

But of course, it’s not those that made me sit up and take notice:

Cyon Black and White Phone AdverisementCyon Black and White Adverisement Black Guy

Yes, that is indeed not a Black man, but a Caucasian man somehow painted black.

It’s so bizarre, and so difficult to rationalize. Because was it really so difficult to find a genuine Black guy? No of course not, and given the extra time and effort involved in painting a Caucasian one then it must have been a deliberate choice. But if so, wouldn’t it have been far more logical and consistent to have also included a Black woman painted white? If not, then what is the “coloring” supposed to signify? And why, oh why, weren’t these blatantly obvious questions  asked by LG Cyon?

Very flawed concept and execution aside though, could the advertisement be construed as racist in any sense?

To answer, my first thought was to turn to Michael Hurt post’s about other Korean examples of the “Blackface” phenomenon at the Scribblings of the Metropolitician, and I broadly agree that the examples he gives are indeed offensive. Moreover, a huge multinational company like LG (of which Cyon is just the name of its mobile phone arm) would almost certainly be aware of the reception they would receive in Western markets, and as such cannot claim ignorance of their racist connotations and history, a parallel of which is Coreana’s use of Nazi imagery in a cosmetics commercial (see Brian in Jeollanam-do here and here for more on that). Nor do I accept the argument that images that Westerners would find problematic are automatically rendered acceptable simply by virtue or being made by and for Koreans, a culturally-relativist Girls' Generation Original Album Coverargument that at the very least is highly patronizing to the latter.

But despite all that, my gut reaction to first offenses is to give the various Korean institutions, companies, and/or individuals behind them the benefit of the doubt, and to use them as an opportunity for education. In particular, because Korean society almost completely lacks any sense of political correctness (which can be as refreshing as it is annoying), and as, for instance, the recent controversy over the use of icons of its former Japanese colonizers for Girls’ Generation’s new album cover (see here and here) demonstrate, or the choice of a comfort woman theme for a series of erotic photos, many Korean companies can display a shocking ignorance of what might offend just fellow Koreans, let alone foreigners. Moreover, considering that: until as late as 2006 Korean social-science textbooks stated that Korea was a homogeneous society and that this was a source of national strength (see #1 here); that a great deal of manifestations of supposedly Western culture in the music industry especially are mere imitations of domestic acts that have come before them, sans non-Koreans’ cultural baggage and angst; and finally that, in Japan at least there are:

…teenagers who used to dress up, and maybe still do, in a fashion known as Ganguro (ガングロ), which literally means “black-face.”

According to a Western video report on this phenomenon, this look does not come from people of African descent; instead, its origins are traceable to a Japanese comic’s donning of blackface in order to clown around in a loincloth in the guise of an aboriginal Australian.

Mix&Match Cyon Korean Phone AdvertisementWith influences on Korea also (again, see Michael’s post), then it’s almost surprising that offensive advertisements and so on don’t crop up more often, and perhaps demonstrate that Korean society is improving in this regard, albeit more slowly than surely (see below).

Also, while intent is not the only consideration in judging such an advertisement, it is still probably the most important, and accordingly I’m at a loss as to how the Cyon advertisements could be construed as a deliberate attempt to demean Black people somehow, regardless of how much offense it may or may not generate: indeed, if that was the intention, then it could certainly have been done much more directly.

That said, I’m reluctant to let Cyon completely off the hook. For take its advertisement from last year for the “mix&match SH-240” series of phones on the right for instance (source). In isolation, then they’re not bad at all (sex sells after all), but again, consistent and logical would have been alternative advertisements with a Caucasian man and a Korean women getting it on also, let alone Koreans with partners of other ethnicities, and I see such a lack as both very deliberate and emblematic of the Korean media’s issues with such relationships even in 2009 (see here, here, here, and here). But that’s another blog post, albeit one which I have to write very soon as part of my preparation for this conference in August!

Update, October 17) See here for another controversial example of “contemporary blackface,” this time from the French version of Vogue magazine.

(For more posts in the “Korean Sociological Image” series, see here)

Korean Sociological Image #8: America…Fuck Yeah!

Korean Advertisement Sungshin Women's University Relative Size Racism Caucasian

An advertisement from today’s Korea Times, which immediately grabbed my attention for 3 reasons:

  • It’s for a women’s university, but not only does it feature men, it has more men than women.
  • It has a Caucasian man in it, whereas the target audience would overwhelmingly be Korean.
  • The Caucasian man is easily the most prominent feature in it, and is looking at the viewer rather than into the distance like the Korean students.

After just a few minutes thought though, obvious reasons emerge for all of those: men are and should be featured because the program is available to both men and women (well technically, the website doesn’t mention anything about the sex of applicants) for instance, and for all their ethnic diversity Caucasians are still an instant and logical signifier of Western countries. And dealing face to face with an American colleague at an American hospital – ie, having a job at one – is precisely the goal of students that will enter this program too, which in turn is well represented by the Koreans in the advertisement looking towards their futures as it were. As the male Korean is wearing a tie, then I’m a bit unsure as to whether the Koreans are supposed to be students in the program or graduates with jobs looking for better opportunities, but other than that slight confusion then the advertisement appears logical as a whole.

Still, despite myself it gives me misgivings.

One minor reason is because the doctor is male. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it seems strange to have a male role-model in an advertisement for a women’s university. Yes, I know I just said that the doctor is supposed to be a future colleague, yet in addition to representing both that and a life in America he does still have a job that students entering into the program would aspire to. If the primary target of the advertisement is women then, not choosing a female doctor seems like a wasted opportunity to kill three birds with one stone.

kim-tae-hee-kang-dong-won-cyon-phone-advertisement-relative-size-eab980ed839ced9dac-eab095eb8f99ec9b90( Source )

But dammit, why’d he have to be so big? As I discuss at great length here, relative size is one of the most powerful tools in advertising, not only making certain features more prominent than others but also – especially when it’s used to contrast two or more people of different sexes, ethnicities, jobs, ages, and so on – both determining and conforming to social norms of ranking, status, and appropriate social roles. For instance, if you take a random man and woman then in 1 in 6 cases the woman will be of equal height or taller, but in advertisements the figure is closer to 1 in 20 or even less. Not that that is evidence of sexism per se though, as women overwhelmingly prefer men that are taller than themselves, and it’s natural that many advertisements would reflect this. Moreover, if you’ve chosen specific celebrities with a significant height difference, say Kang Dong-won (강동원) and Kim Tae-hee (김태희) above, then it would be difficult to engineer a realistic-looking advertisement in which he somehow appears shorter than her.

kim-tae-hee-kang-dong-won-cyon-phone-advertisement-eab491eab3a0-relative-size-eab980ed839ced9dac-eab095eb8f99ec9b90But then consider this advertisement on the right with the exact same couple (source), in which the height difference has been significantly reduced. Sure, it’s not the only reason why the advertisement has a completely different, more egalitarian vibe than the first, but I’d argue that it’s the most important one. And to hammer that point home, consider how simply bizarre everyone would find the above, gangsterish one if Kim Tae-hee were just a little bigger, let alone if a woman taller than Kang Dong-won had been used.

Ergo, size matters, and so while my concern with Sunghin Women’s University’s advertisement may well only stem from the inherent angst of being a socially-aware Caucasian male, guilty at living in a country where being such undeniably confers certain advantages, it still leaves me feeling a little uncomfortable. I would have much preferred one that focused more on the Korean students themselves, and how the program empowered them, but while retaining the signifiers of America, the job, and so on. Not something that basically says:

Oooh, do this course, and you can talk to and work with White people! In America!!! What more could you ever want?

Okay, that specific vocalization may just be me. Or is it? That’s a rather indelicate way to put it above, but it is certainly true that living and working (and being educated) in America conveys a lot of status in Korean society, so far from me implying that any Korean is a passive dupe for responding positively to advertisements like this it is logical and intelligent for them to do so. Moreover, my wife, who is Korean, pointed out that most Koreans wouldn’t think twice about the Caucasian in this ad. Perhaps my concerns are misplaced then.

What do you think? Mere overanalysis and liberal-arts major angst on my part? Or a legitimate concern? Regardless, admit that the doctor is the first person you noticed too though!

(For all posts in the “Korean Sociological Image” series, see here)