23 March 2007

Gatorade A.M. and The Smiling Milkman

Am I the only one wondering what the hell is up with the new Gatorade A.M. commercial?

OK, last night I was watching TV. (Yes, I admit, Grey's Anatomy, although I can not stand the title character, that simpering speech-making, non-acting, helpless-girl Meredith Grey. Cristina, Bailey, and Torres, however, kick ass.)

So I look up to catch a commercial featuring a smiling Black milkman à la 1930, resplendent in his spotless white uniform, happily delivering bottles of new Gatorade A.M. to customers in a manicured subdivision. All to a friendly background tune reminiscent of ice-cream-truck-sounding jingles.
(watch it here. scroll over and click on "Special Delivery)

I quickly unmute the TV, causing the First-Born Daughter to look up, annoyed at the sound of a dreaded commercial.

Me: (scrambling to unmute the TV) Are they kidding? What is this?
FBD: Wow ... what the hell?
Me: Is it just me?
FBD: um ... seriously, what the hell?

The final line of the commercial goes like this:

Gatorade A.M. -- Same science, different time.

And how, Spanky!

The milkman is the very talented (not to mention good-looking...) NBA star Kevin Garnett. I don't much follow basketball, being a football kinda gal, but evidently Kevin is the shit on the court.

Gatorade A.M is a new line created for the perky morning athlete. It comes in morning-friendly flavors, like Strawberry-Orange or Mango, that supposedly won't make you upchuck its sugary sweetness when you're still bleary eyed and half-asleep.

Coffee is a normal morning drink. Orange sugar-water is not.

Anyway, The Milkman's customers are, evidently, other sports stars: 3 female soccer players(one of whom looks to be Mia Hamm), and Colts quarterback Peyton Manning -- all White, all rushing out to their morning workouts.

There is one Black neighbor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), out watering his lawn, who nods to The Milkman. Note: Kevin Garnett and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the only African-Americans in this little production, are the only 2 athletes not portrayed as athletes, but rather as the iconic 1930s milkman and the only guy in the neighborhood doing yardwork. The white athletes are portrayed as the superstars they are.

So: The Milkman comes up the walk with his syrupy wares as Peyton Manning rushes out the door for his morning workout. The Milkman calmly throws him a Gatorade A.M. while saying, "Playbook".

Oops! Peyton's forgotten his playbook! As he rushes back for it, The Milkman gives a satisfied nod, knowing he's helped keep the star quarterback on track.


Now, I'm thinking, Kevin Garnett is an NBA superstar, at least the same level as these happy suburban athletes, right? He is their peer, their equal. Given that, I'm wondering...
  • Why is he playing the milkman?
  • Why is he serving the other sports stars?
  • Why are he and the "Black neighbor" the only athletes not being portrayed as athletes?
  • And Why, while we're at it, is the lone Black neighbor the only one doing yardwork, instead of heading for a workout with Gatorade A.M.?

Am I the only one thinking this ad is just a little too close to the ads of yore? Something a little like this, maybe?

Why did this commercial immediately put me in mind of those days when success for Kevin would've likely meant a dapper chauffeur's uniform? (Substitute: snappy bellhop or porter's uniform. Pristine milkman's uniform.)

Success for Kevin in those times would not have come packaged in an NBA uniform.

I did not live in those times. My daughter sure didn't. My mom barely has memories of the milkman leaving glass jugs in the secret little door at the side of my Grandma's house.

So. Why then, did that scene immediately bring a "WTF?" reaction? Why did that scene cause my 19-yr old daughter's jaw to drop?

Because ... those images are part of American culture, and we have absorbed them in a million little ways over the course of our lives. Even now.

The earliest posters and advertising purposely depicted Black folks in ways that made White folks feel superior and safe. From the wide-eyed pickaninny, broadly smiling mammy and harmless old uncle, up to the first "positive" images of the "successful" Black man: smartly attired to happily pump gas, tote luggage, or wait tables for White people.

"Different Time" indeed.

I know lots of people are going to roll their eyes and say this commercial isn't racist. Golly, how some people sure do look for racism around every corner! I'm sure folks will say, hey, good for Kevin, do that commercial, make some bank, baby. And of course, the usual, "If it were a white guy in the truck, you wouldn't be bitching -- that's more racist!" Well, guess what, it wasn't a white guy in the truck. And it wasn't a non-athlete serving a diverse group of athletes. So whatever. I'm just talking about my reaction.

I'm sorry, but it's just a little too weird for me.

I don't know Kevin's reasons for doing this commercial, and I guess it's his business. I'd be interested in his thoughts about it. I do plan to write to Gatorade. I am really bothered by seeing this in the media in 2007 like it's nothing.

I have a 14-yr old son who's into sports. It's enough of an issue that our media loves to present athletes as the main role models for African-American kids. (Yes, great role models, but they're not the only ones, ok?) Now Gatorade has gone one step farther: they've presented this fine athlete not as the successful basketball player he is, but as a friggin' milkman, in a position of servitude to his fellow athletes, complete with all the trappings from those Happy Days Gone By.

This is what my son is supposed to see as the role of a successful Black athlete? Are you fucking kidding me?

You suck, Gatorade.

I just wanted to point this out, say something, because it's just not ok. Rant over.


acwo said...

I like your blog very much
keep it up!

Tactless Wonder said...

Wow, so wrong. First "boy" cows and now this? We are so messing up the youth of our country.

The worst part may be that Gatorade didn't catch it. SOMEONE must have noticed. There are entire departments dedicated to this kind of thing in hollywood-land. I hope they're not subscribing to the notion that any publicity is good publicity.

Lucy said...

Gatorade caught it. They did it deliberately, and probably have some fucked-up rationale for it.

But Tactless, or Cowbell: what did I miss about boy cows? I just joked about that a coupla days ago-

more cowbell said...

TW: yeah, I prefer to think, "Geez, how could they not catch that?! Hire some people who have a clue!" But, as time goes on, I tend to think Lucy has it right. >sigh<

Lucy: The "boy cows" was from my 10-Mar-07 post on the movie Barnyard. It's an udder thing. Weird.

ashalyn said...

I was amazed when I saw that commercial. Seriously, I thought there was going to be some kind of punchline at the end that emphasized and denounced racism like that.

My optimistic side wants to say it just slipped by them, but my logical side says there's no WAY someone could just not notice that. I mean, whose bright idea was it anyway? Who raised their hand in the marketing meeting and said, "Picture this, right. We have a black milkman..." And who nodded their head and said, "Oh wow, that's brilliant!"

Or maybe they think they're the type that "doesn't see color", which is another kind of racism entirely. Anyway, I find that hard to buy because the milkman just "happened" to be the only black guy (besides the one who was watering his lawn. And while we're on the subject, how does the viewer even know it's HIS lawn? It's an athletes' cul-de-sac; he should be working out if he's an athlete!)

I certainly won't be buying Gatorade anytime this century. Glad to see you agree, cowbell.

Anonymous said...

i COMPLETELY agree! i just saw this commercial and went onto google to see if anyone else cares. ew.
-white f. 23

Anonymous said...

I would have never looked at this commercial in such a way, but now I won't look at it the same again...

However, *perhaps* Abdul-Jabbar was watering his lawn because he is retired? Maybe that's why he wasn't going to work out like the others?

And I got the impression Manning was the one looking like kind of a chump, forgetting his playbook, and Garnett looked wise and helpful.

But that's just what I saw...

Anonymous said...

oh Jesus Christ. Lighten the fuck up. You'll live longer.

Anonymous said...

get a life.

ashalyn said...

It would suck to live longer in a racist society like this. No thank you.

Anonymous said...

you're right. why don't you put yourself out of your misery?

Stephen Douglas said...

What, no cries for Mia Hamm being portrayed as a "soccer mom?" Look, I found a racist picture for you: http://www-lu.hive.no/plansjer/engelsk/milkman.jpg
Wait, I don't get it? How can there be a white milkman?

Seriously, keep looking for racism and maybe eventually you'll find it somewhere.

Phil said...

I think it's alittle misleading to say, "the only African-Americans in this little production, are the only 2 athletes not portrayed as athletes," I think the high school football team has some black players on it, including the one Garnett passes the gatorade to.

I also wonder why the anger directed at Gatorade isn't also directed at K.G., if the ad is indeed racist, doesn't he deserve some critisism?

TommoTornado said...

Racist? Are you serious? The fact that someone could look at this commercial and think 'racism' the first time they saw just boggles the mind. Alright, given the world we live it, if you literally sit down and over-analyze a piece like this, you are going to find things that could be construed as racist. But what's the point if you have to over-analyze in order to get to that conclusion?

Why don't you try and take this for what it is, a simple commercial. I have a feeling that the marketing guru's working for Gatorade didn't have racism in mind when they made this commercial. Kevin Garnett and all of the others in this ad were paid to do this. I guess we can't make anymore commercials that depict Garnett being a 'milkman' because, God forbid, it's degrading and racist. Gasp! How is Kareem, who is watering his own lawn, viewed as racist? If he had been playing basketball or something, would this commercial been any different. I guess you still would have found a way to play the racist card. To point the racist finger at this commercial is just ridiculous. What a waste of thought...

Anonymous said...

If you want more racism, then look how KG plays the Bagger Vance role and looks out for the well-being of the absent-minded whites....

But seriously. Kareem is probably playing the happily retired athlete taking the suburban pleasure of yard-work.

But I think KG's role as Gatorade spokesman has more to do with your perceived racism. The ads-people were probably trying to cover as many bases as possible: men, women, black, white, old, all the sports possible: football, soccer, basketball. In this set-up SOMEBODY has to be the milkman. Would there be perceived gender bias if the woman had been serving the athletic men? If the old had been serving the youth? If the whites had been serving the blacks? In that case, might that not be pandering to a desire for a balancing of past accounts?

You're also missing the other big reality. KG is paid well for his bball skills. In the commercial, he's receiving fat checks (as is everybody else). While in the past blacks were relegated to low-pay jobs, what we're clearly seeing here is how marketable people make money marketing.

Is it racist when you see black basketball players hoopin' it up in an inner-city park, and then drinking gatorade? Does that propogate the image of the urban black? Or is that trying to reach a targetted audience?

Your claims require a little more evidence than you present here.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is why I need to stay away from Blogs. I don't have the time to contribute, and being passionate, I wish to contribute to way too much than is good for my time available.

I am 40 and old enough to know about the imagery from the past that is being invoked here, however, I was COMPLETELY blind to any of this.

Although I have been only involved in the periphery of marketing (done some copy-writing and handled print ads for the business I work for), as typical ADD, have been a "student of the ad" my entire life.

Couldn't help notice how ads were constructed to manipulate (in a good way sometimes).

I will add that I am a white person who was a pastor's kid and had to literally have racism explained to me after we moved to a bigger city.

As well, I was unconsciously drawn to black culture by watching things like Shaft and The Mod Squad and being like "Man, what is it these people have I don't?...I want it!".

Later a black friend blurted out "Soul." when telling him of the above.

So, I am very sensitive on the subject and, as an example from my younger days, threw down with another airman when I was in the service (USAF) who used the n-word unapologeticly (and seemingly without a thought).

Real racism: Not cool.

So, with all that preamble, let me say I found this blog when trying to find out who the Milkman was in the ad...because I loved his portrayal so much!!

I didn't love "the milkman" due to his characters' "safety" because of "Fear of A Black Planet" (hee-hee...I hope you get it...I'm a HUGE P.E. fan), it was because the ad had him portrayed as The Man!

I am very impressed with Kevin Garnett (now that I know that's who he is), who projects calm wisdom and seems to genuinely broadcast kindness (empathy?)as well throughout this commercial.

To read your blog and think back, I see the observations being presented and their circumstantial evidence of what many of you think of this commercial's "real" message.

Seriously, initially I had to check myself and really put my feet to the fire as I was concerned I had been taken somehow.

Was it my innocence of not looking for that as a default (try to think the best of things unless they set off alarms) maybe?

No. Instead I offer all of you a different vision of the events.

I see Kevin and Kareem as "above" all that is going on (ergo the knowing nod between them) and as the calm, wise purveyors of the "milk".

They seem to be the mentors in this scenario to the harried white folk running around in this.

Not service as in "Yessuh!", but in "Man, you people would be out of business without me." of the competent administrative assistant who is behind every great business-guy/doctor I have ever dealt with when I worked IT for a while.

I think the observations of portrayals of blacks in this as "non-athletes" is an astute one, but I think the conclusions drawn are specious reasoning.

Seriously, I think it might be getting into a mind-set, and then very well supporting how you got there, but I would like to offer an alternate look.

The amount of subtle expression by Garnett is genius (credits to him and to the director for potentially being the one to coax it out of his natural repetoire), and I love this commercial.

Please consider what I have said. It is in earnest, and qualified by my background and personal convictions on the subject.

I also hope I conveyed my feelings in a way I hope will be more considered to a simple disagreement.

Oh, and excuse any spelling and grammatical errors. :)

See why I need to stay off blogs...hmmm...or maybe why I should start my own. ;-P

Groove Champion
The Lord of Low;The Bass Commando.

DrBear said...

Well, racisim is where you find it, not where it is, I guess.

First, I don't think all the milkmen in 1930 were black.

Second, all of the athletes in the spot have done Gatorade ads before, so that sorta limits who can do what. And I would have checked to see just how many athletes were black and how many white on the football team Kevin delivers to.

Your intentions were good, but your sense of what's really happening...

Anonymous said...

You gotta be kidding me.

It's a funny commercial. That's it. There's nothing racist about it. Think you're looking into it a little bit too much?

Or maybe you are just looking for racist overtones because you in fact, are a racist.

Anthony said...

People like you have too much time on your hands and should get a real job instead of watching TV and overthinking commercials that were made to entertain. Lighten up, enjoy the commerical, and buy the product. That's all that Gatorade asks.

BenRifkah said...

I realize that this is an old post but I just ran across it. I had a strange feeling the first time I saw this add as well. Although I'm too young to have experienced it directly I've been exposed to a great deal of the marketing imagery you describe and it immediately came to mind.

The strange feeling I had was not concern that the ad's creators had any malicious racist intent. I know without even having to ask them that the creators "have nothing against black people" and that indeed "some of their best friends are black." It's more probable that they deliberately mimicked the early 1900's ad style and were fully aware of the racial overtones yet felt that Kevin's role as the Magical Negro absolved them of any possible racism.

The feeling I had was more a sadness that I knew that the creators and most of the white people who saw the commercial wouldn't understand what was racist about it; a sadness that if anyone mentioned perpetuation of decades old racial stereotypes they would be dismissed as paranoid and racist themselves.

Cowbell has laid out a good case for what is racist about this ad but if anyone is still not clear the racism here is most likely not of the active "I hate minorities" racism. It is a more passive racism that comes from perpetuating old stereotypes that were originally of the malicious type. Stereotypes like these have been around for so long that they are ingrained in our society and people don't even realize they were once deliberately racist. In fact people often argue that stereotypes like the Magical Negro are anti-racist because they portray blacks as “wise”. People blithely pass these on in the name of entertainment totally unaware that they are propagating a racist legacy. This is called White Privilege and last week just happened to be White Privilege Awareness Week here at the University of Washington where I work.

Check out whiteprivilege.com for more information about this passive form of racism.

With that said I’m not really offended by the ad. I’m not looking to abolish all racist stereotypes. They serve as a reminder of where we’ve been and how far we’ve come as long as they are used to educate. If Gatorade were caught with blatant racist hiring practices I would call for boycott. However, showing a commercial like this needs a different approach. I like the idea of a letter campaign. Not to have the commercial removed, but to have it altered so that it explicitly and directly discusses the racial aspect and fosters awareness.

Red7Eric said...

They've taken it off of their website. Perhaps yours wasn't the only complaint? Anyway, it sounds dreadful, so I'm sure I would have been inclined to agree with you.

Anonymous said...

So how can you make any ad, with any person, of any race/creed/color in it, and NOT be racist?

These kind of complaints trivialize actual racism, and stifle creativity.

It's better to have some hypersensitive people offended than to have every commercial, or tv show, or movie, etc become boring and P.C. just so someone out there isn't offended.

I'd really like someone to explain to me how to use a white guy, black guy -- whomever -- in an ad and not be racist. Based on the criteria set out here I don't think it's possible.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be talking about who's "racist" if i were you. In your attempt to be politically correct, you made a racist comment by referring to black people as "African American" while refering to the white people as..."white". The proper term to use is "Caucasian". I don't care if your white. By calling them white, you've made a racist remark.

Anonymous said...

This is a good ad. You are stupid to think this is racist.

Anonymous said...

Kareem is not an athlete anymore. He's old. Manning and the ladies still play. Whatever. You fucking racist asshole. You'd think it was brilliant if white people were waiting on black people. DIE.

Anonymous said...

There's a racial message, but it's a positive message about race. It represents how far we've come. The black milkman's role represents the past. Milkman? No one has a milkman anymore. Today, the only other black man, Kareem Abdul, obviously lives in this VERY white upper middle class neighborhood and is watering HIS lawn. He's prepped out. Many minorities actually like white people and vica versa. In the end the white Colt's player, who lives in the big house, is helped out by the smart delivery man who remembers his playbook. He is portrayed as a smart decent guy. It is a message about how racial stereotypes are old and dying. it is about race, it is an abstraction about race. This is a new day for race. Watch it in that light. Everyone in the ad is happy. Try that on.