(This article was first published in print in issue 2 of the Philippine Collegian on 20 June 2012.)
The ad is deceitful in its simplicity. It shows an elegantly styled woman standing against a black background and quantifying her mixed heritage. Jasmine Curtis-Smith, one of the featured models, has been labelled as “50% Australian, 50% Filipino.” Its accompanying manifesto suggests that, with race, as with clothes, it is all about mixing and matching.
In the course of a week, the “What’s Your Mix?” campaign launched by Bayo has reaped an assortment of reactions from social media networks. Some fashionistas and designers see it as a refreshing clothing campaign due to its minimalist approach and rationale. On the other hand, critics dubbed it insensitive, tasteless, and outright racist due to its supposed privileging of foreign heritage.
While the campaign is currently a hot topic, it is but a speck in the universe of advertising, the nature of which is to sell products and secure profit, as made possible by creating aspirations and promoting questionable commodities.
What’s your mix?
In our current global economy, race and ethnicity are recognized as critical market segments. As early as 1994, at least half of the biggest companies in the world have been employing ethnic or racial marketing strategies.
In the early 90’s, clothing brands such as the United Colors of Benetton have made a reputation more for their racially-loaded ad campaigns rather than their actual clothes. Perhaps, in its attempt to laud mixed heritage, Bayo is eyeing to enter the global market by insinuating that Filipino blood can always make it in the world arena.
As the “What’s Your Mix?” campaign proves, using racial and ethnic diversity in advertising is a rather tricky business. On one hand, while it promotes a sense of inclusivity and belongingness, it also remains to be a sensitive, if not outright taboo, subject matter.
Conversations about race and ethnicity usually entail an examination, if not an affirmation, of biological, cultural and personal identity, conjuring sentiments about national identity and identity confusion. If not done in good taste, a well-meaning call for tolerance could be seen as discriminatory or racist, demonstrating the irony that the more we push for diversity, the more we breed intolerance.
While the ad aims to celebrate a mixed heritage, it polarizes views on what heritage should be. For some, the ad is a celebration of Filipino blood. For others, it is a glorification of the foreign. The campaign, which initially served as a celebration of being Filipino, became an avenue to examine what it means to be Filipino. While advertising campaigns seem to be an odd place to look for definitions of national identity, its changing images serve as a testament to our fluctuating national sentiment.
It remains a wonder how a few skewed percentages and a poorly worded manifesto could spark a debate on racism, on heritage, and on what it means to be Filipino. But, as Sut Jhally, an Indian advertising critic, stipulates, the power of advertising comes, “not from the ingenuity of advertisers, but from the need for meaning”.
The percentages, while seemingly baseless, intend to show that Filipino blood makes the featured models beautiful and world class. However, the best that the ratio did was to quantify race and ethnicity and make the models seem like fractured beings. The manifesto, on the other hand, simplifies the phenomenon of mixed heritage by comparing it with the mixing and matching of clothes.
As Roland Tolentino, a critic of popular culture, contends, what is not stated in the mixed-race politics of Bayo is the literal violence behind the union of the said races. For example, some Amerasians are a result of American-Filipino unions in the red light districts surrounding the Subic and Clark Air Bases. Some Japinos, on the other hand, are not recognized by their Japanese fathers, with the Filipina mothers working in Japan.
By stipulating that a mixed heritage is simply “all about mixing and matching”, the ad glosses over the rather violent histories of how inter-racial unions came to be. The campaign tripped over the fact that one’s heritage is not always subject to freedom of choice, but is a product of specific historical moments.
In the current global market, the concept of race remains a hot commodity. As with the example of Bayo, the actual value of the clothes that they are selling has been overshadowed by the attractiveness of a mixed heritage as the premium commodity.
Advertising ascribes a certain mystique to commodities in order to promote the consumption of goods and services that aid the construction of cultural identity. As with the case of Bayo, this commodity fetishism reaffirms desires and aspirations for a mixed heritage as a cultural commodity, with the advertisers acting as cultural intermediaries.
Commodity racism, as Celia Lury states, has contributed to shifts in the operation of racism, from a biological understanding of race to a racism where race has become “a cultural category in which racial identity is represented as a matter of style, and is the subject of choice”.
The contention remains apparent due to the proliferation of ad campaigns banking on the myth of diversity. However, there still remains a political hierarchy when it comes to race. As much as Bayo attempted to celebrate mixed heritage, it ultimately failed since it did not assert the existence of a political minority and merely retained the cultural status quo, which is bent on glorifying foreign heritage and belittling ethnic lineage.
The packaging of heritage, alongside the far-reaching processes of globalization and its inherent importance within racial discourse, demonstrates the significance of commodification in our seemingly diverse world. Its influence permeates every conscious human endeavour and transforms every sphere of human activity into a good or service that can be bought and sold in the market, stripping even heritage of its essence by making it an object of consumption.
Celia Lury, 1996. From “Studies in Symbolic Interaction”.
Rolando Tolentino. “Bayo ads at mixed-race politics”. Bulatlat. June 11, 2012.
Sut Jhally, 1987. “The Codes of Advertising”.