Nationwide has a commercial in which an African-American couple is getting married in a church full of African-Americans. You can watch it here, but I’ll also describe it below:
The minister interrupts the ceremony to ask the groom if he’s got enough insurance for their future. The groom looks panicked. The minister asks if there’s a Nationwide rep in the congregation. An African-American woman stands up, rushes to the front, and fixes everything up for the happy couple. Then she announces the two are now one Nationwide insurance policy.
On the plus side, we have a commercial featuring African Americans through and through, doing things people of every race do (getting married, needing insurance, etc.). And we have a woman saving the day. It’s also a positive that the minister – one of the two speaking roles – speaks like a normal African-American man – he’s neither a caricature of black preachers, nor a black face delivering the “standard American” (read: white) speech patterns and enunciations we most often hear on TV.
But unlike the rest of the commercial’s players, the insurance rep is light-skinned with features as white as Halle Berry’s. I was a little annoyed by this reinforcement of the narrow and racist Hollywood beauty standard, but prepared to overlook it… until the big finale. She turns to the audience and speaks in a voice/accent so white you’d never guess she was a person of color if your eyes were closed or your TV contrast wasn’t adjusted properly. To top it all off, she rocks her shoulders stiffly side to side in a parody of a gesture stereotyped African-Americans use for emphasis on TV a lot. And just in case that’s not clear enough, the narrator is – you guessed it – a white man.
Now, Nationwide’s intent may have been good, but that’s exactly what makes this commercial worth analyzing. There’s not much we can say about the 99 out of 100 commercial that don’t even feature people of color, or feature only modelesque young white women alongside fat middle-aged men, except “Status quo, once more with feeling.” If other companies perceive this commercial as having done well for its company, they’ll decide to mimic elements of it, and the elements they pick are as likely to be the problematic ones as the positive ones.
Instead of sending an entirely positive message like “…and some of our customers just happen to be African-American,” Nationwide has (probably unthinkingly) positioned itself as a white company reaching out to African-Americans with thinly disguised white representatives. In trying to assess the intent, I keep coming back to that shoulder move the actress does. I’m not sure Nationwide meant it as a parody – if they did, there’s no hope for them, so I’m assuming they didn’t. Maybe they intended it as an ironic send-up of a stereotype, but because the character really feels like a white woman in disguise, the irony gets lost. Also, if anyone argues that perhaps the actress wasn’t talented enough to do it right, I can assure you there is such a surplus of actresses available for career-boosting speaking parts in national commercials that one who doesn’t work right or has a pimple the day of the shoot can be replaced in, oh, fifteen minutes. That’s how it works.
I do feel acknowledging African-Americans as customers with the same basic needs as white people is a positive, no matter what mistakes Nationwide made in the execution. I hope whoever next attempts a commercial like this takes it a step or two further in the right direction.
ETA: This commercial didn’t last long. Nationwide is now running a game show commercial in which a white woman needs to insure her – get this – two new cars (someone pass them a memo about the economy, please?) while a black woman with straightened hair does the Vanna White thing. Oh, yeah: