There must be many viewers who believe that the television commercial “starring” two Indian characters trying to sell a phone service is harmless fun. Maybe the ridiculous Bollywood dances, the retro clothes, and the barely understandable Indian accents are a metaphoric banana peel. Look at goofballs Ranjit and Chad “slip on the peel,” make jackasses of themselves, and treat us to 60 seconds of belly laughs. These unthinking viewers must be growing in number since the corporation sponsoring the ads has turned this from a one-off experiment into a series of ongoing advertisements.
Hip South Asians don’t want to hear criticism about this commercial. With a hint of cool, sophistication, they say, “Chill out! Indians have arrived. We’re on mainstream television. Instead of whining about stereotypes and racism, let’s celebrate our contribution to American capitalism. Maybe the stars of the commercial can help expand American culture to include Amma and amrakhand, as well as Mom and apple pie.”
Perhaps we should ask these too-cool-for-school fools how Mexican-Americans would feel if there was a Taco Bell commercial poking fun at Jose and Pete eating a taco while riding a burro. Or maybe we could have Intel using Taiwanese characters speaking in “ching-chong” English while “celebrating” the offshore contract manufacturing of all the semiconductors inside of computers.
Ha-ha. I’m laughing so hard that my Indian identity hurts. But, hey, as long as I laugh with the rest of the crowd, I won’t be sitting on the sidelines—a loser in the great game of capitalism. After all, who wants to be left out of the game! And unlike previous centuries which had Europe playing the Great Game of imperialism, this is the Asian century and our information technology entrepreneurs are at the center of it.
But let’s be clear that imperialism is not dead. In our so-called post-imperial world, advertising is the new empire. Valued as an annual market of over $800 billion, advertising influences not only what we buy but also what we laugh at. It is an integral part of the media that defines our global civilization, and thus shapes culture at many levels: family, friend, corporation, and country.
As you decide what you want to laugh at and who you want to laugh with, please consider how much power over your identity you want to cede to advertisers. You have a choice of how to think of the commercial’s two actors: Memorable buffoons? Front men pitching a product? Or sad court jesters who the “king” and the king’s advertising “Mad Men” use and abuse? What’s at stake is more than a couple of television characters. What’s at stake is the diginity of your own character.
Dr. Rajesh C. Oza is a change management consultant.
No, there is a wide spectrum of Indian characters on television
Comedy has relied on poking fun at stereotypes for thousands of years. Advertising has relied on comedy to stand out of the clutter and get people’s attention for decades. Indians are just the latest in a long line of targets for comedians—Scots, Irish, Italians, Poles, Jews, Arabs, Chinese, etc …
I could make the argument that we should “just chill” and stop being so thin-skinned. I could make the argument that we shouldn’t give this ad any more importance than it deserves by letting it become our latest national obsession. I could say we should kick back and laugh at ourselves.
Besides all these, my primary argument is that if you can do something, do it; if you can’t do anything, just put up and stop whining.
While a protest against something like this smacks of censorship (to be avoided, obviously), the bigger issue is that the most serious thing you can do is lodge a statement of protest—okay, a “strongly worded” one if you insist. This will be correctly seen as the largely impotent reaction of an insecure, thin-skinned, and small-minded people. That’s assuming nobody seriously suggests doing something totally disproportionate like cutting off diplomatic relations with every country that has Metro PCS service.
Advertisers respond to what works in the marketplace. If the ad helps Metro PCS, they’re going to keep running it, irrespective of whether we care or not. Elevating the ad to a cocktail party debating topic only gives Metro PCS a lot of free mileage they haven’t paid a cent for. (I bet a lot of people are going to look for it on YouTube after this article comes out.)
Vote with your feet. Try to convince every like-minded friend you have to avoid or drop Metro PCS service. You can even refuse to call people who have Metro PCS service, if you like, or even just change the channel when the ad comes on.
We have been on the world stage long enough, and are understood enough, that there are stereotypes of Indians that span the entire spectrum. Exhibit A: Intel’s “Our Rock Stars are Not Like Your Rock Stars” campaign starring an Indian computer scientist who designed one of their latest and greatest chips. The most common role Indians are typecast into is one of a nerd / geek / techie. And I certainly don’t want to add “humorlessness” to the list. Then there’s Neha Shen Rastogi’s rather long list (http://www.slate.com/id/2255937) of brown-skinned actors on television. Yes, there is a cab driver, but there is also a middle-school principal, and a Chicago investigator. I would call that pretty diverse.
Advertisers don’t shape stereotypes or national pride and identity any more than Viswanathan Anand winning the World Chess Championships does. As for me, I’m just going to kick back, relax, and enjoy a good laugh the next time the ad comes on.
P.R. Ganapathy writes from New York.