Ad Report Card: Most Racist Spot of the Year?

Earlier this month New York University’s department of culture and communication presented the fifth annual “Schmio Awards.”  The name is a sneering echo of the Clio Awards, which is the ad industry’s Oscars-like vehicle for patting itself on the back. The point of the Schmios is to kick the ad industry in the shins. While the Ad Report Card doesn’t take an official stance one way or the other on the business of advertising in general, I certainly like the idea of the Schmios.

This year’s “winners” included several spots familiar to devoted readers of this column. Nike’s famous “slasher” ad was chastised at the Schmios. So was the Discover Card’s “emergency room” installment. The Britney Spears Pepsi ad got popped. And Leslie Savan, whose famous advertising columns from the Village Voice are collected in the highly recommended book, The Sponsored Life, plumbed the racial meaning of the Budweiser “Whassup” campaign, a theme briefly noted in the Ad Report Card’s Super Bowl special. Often the Schmio committee (or whatever) was tougher on these ads than I was, but then their criteria are rather different. 

In any case, what most interested me from this year’s list of losers and bigger losers was “The Rudyard Kipling Prize for the Year’s Most Racist TV Spot,” which went to Fox Sports. The main target here was a fake Indian broadcast, which you can see here via Two similar spots offer mock Turkish and Russian sports reports.

The Ads: In the India installment, a couple of announcers, speaking a language unrecognizable to most viewers, present “highlights” from a sporting event that seems to be taking place in a dusty and remote village. The villagers, wearing robes and turbans and waving their hands and shouting, have formed a ring on a patch of earth. Within the ring, two very large, scantily clad men pace around blindfolded, carrying gigantic bats. Apparently they’re meant to battle. One swings his bat into the crowd, smashing a spectator to the ground. The “announcer” raises his voice in the heightened tones of a sportscaster swept up by an exciting turn of events. Villagers attempt to keep the “athlete” from pounding the fallen spectator to a pulp. The same titles come up at the end of all three spots: “Sports news from the only region your care about. Yours.” We fade to the Fox Sports Net logo: “Hometown News. Local Stories. Regional Highlights.”

In the second ad, a mustached announcer, identified as Murat Elhamri, reports from an event in a wild-looking mountainous area, in Turkey I gather. Cut to: a diver on a high platform, shot from below. He wears trunks and loosens his neck for a moment or two as the announcer continues speaking in what I assume is Turkish. The camera pulls back to show that the platform is on the edge of a tall cliff. The man dives, and the camera pulls back further: He lands not in water but on the ground, smacking into a cloud of dirt. There’s no water in sight, actually, just a small clutch of peasant onlookers, who clap politely as judge ratings appear along the bottom of the screen.

In the third spot, another mustached announcer speaks in animated Russian. The setting this time is a squalid-looking room packed with spectators, with the vaguely illicit feeling of a scene in Fight Club. Two burly and menacing-looking guys sit opposite each other at a small table, with a judge looking on. There’s a timer of the sort used in chess matches. The bald one goes first: He slaps his competitor in the face, then hits the timer. The competitor responds with a more forceful slap as the crowd cheers. One more slap from the bald guy. And finally, the winning slap is delivered, and the judge lifts the champion’s hand in triumph as the blow is replayed in slow motion and the announcer bleats his excitement.

What’s so funny? First of all, I’d like to point out that if face-slapping was a competitive sport anywhere in the world, Fox would almost certainly broadcast it and perhaps help bankroll the creation of knockoff leagues in the United States. But let’s leave that aside.

The humor of the India spot in particular is, in fact, pretty vicious. The joke, such as it is, turns on the idea of a bunch of backward savages in a far-off and thoroughly uncivilized land. The Schmio brain trust has a point, and you don’t exactly have to be a liberal professor of media studies to recognize how clumsily Fox is playing to the bleachers here: Ha, ha, other cultures are so funny! The Turkey spot, meanwhile, is in some ways even more disturbing since it’s not clear what’s supposed to be more hilarious: the guy slamming into the ground or his simple countrymen applauding same.

What the Russian spot has going for it is that the joke is not completely dependent on the humorous ignorance of impoverished peasants. You could change the setting and characters to a suburban basement filled with beer-swilling Fox Sports fans, and it would still be pretty funny. Of course, the dispiriting thing about this is that if the Fox crew figured out how make its point in one ad without being idiotically crass, they could have done it in the others. Too bad they didn’t. Give the series as a whole a disgraceful D.