Racist chocolate bar ads? Give me a break

When offence is in the eye of the beholder, even an advert for a Cadbury's chocolate bar can be deemed hateful.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Free Speech

When is an advert for a chocolate bar not an advert for a chocolate bar? The answer, of course, is when someone perceives it to be racist.

If you think that’s impossible, even in these thin-skinned, offence-taking times, you clearly didn’t reckon on the papery dermatitis of super-sensitive model Naomi Campbell. The object of her ire has to be described to be believed: a poster advert for a new Cadbury’s ‘dreamy chocolate truffle’.

‘Move over Naomi, there’s a new Diva in town’, runs the strapline. Underneath there is an image of the new, desperately deluxe chocolate bar luxuriating on top of a pile of diamonds. The background is Cadbury’s purple, the context spoilt and indulgent. At the bottom it reads: ‘I’m the world’s most pampered bar. Now in three NEW flavours.’ Provocative stuff indeed.

Now, I’m no expert on the semiotics of advertising, but I reckon that whoever came up with this little mesh of ironic signage wanted to do two things. They wanted to suggest that this chocolate bar was a cut above your bog-standard Dairy Milk, that it was valuable, perhaps even precious, and that you, Mr Customer, might like to spend some money on it. At the same time, in a market dominated by a surfeit of posh ‘137% Mayan Blood’ chocolate, they didn’t want the product to take itself too seriously so the preciousness of the chocolate bar was exaggerated to the point of ostentation. Now, given that ostentation is the mark of someone who thinks a little bit too much of themselves and isn’t afraid to show it, it’s not difficult to see how the idea of chocolate-as-diva entered the ad agency’s collective cerebellum. Cue the reference to Naomi Campbell.

Campbell, however, is not happy. ‘I am shocked. It’s upsetting to be described as chocolate, not just for me but for all black women and black people… It is insulting and hurtful.’ What Campbell seems intent on ignoring is that the element of Naomi Campbell that is important for the advert is not her skin pigment, but her notorious strops-and-diamonds diva-ness. Unperturbed by such petty distinctions, Valerie Morris, Campbell’s mother, preferred to concentrate on the skin pigment: ‘I am deeply upset by this racist advert.’

So there you have it: the advert is racist. Campbell says so. Even her mother says so. And it seems that is enough for the ad to be treated as actually racist: Cadbury’s has now withdrawn the advert.

All of which is not only a violation of free expression, it is completely absurd. Whatever you think about the concept behind the advert, it was – and I’m pretty sure about this – an attempt to sell as much chocolate to as many people as possible. Quite how ‘foment a race war’ fits into Cadbury’s commercial strategy is unclear. Is the white-supremacist pound really so valuable that a chocolate company would be willing to forgo the custom of non-racists?

Admittedly, Campbell’s over-the-top response ought to have been a surprise to no one. This after all is a woman whose name rarely appears without the word ‘allegedly’ somewhere very nearby. That she has decided to flex her well-toned litigious muscle and is ‘considering her options’ is very much in keeping with her alleged love of a famously wealthy woman called Sue.

But it’s not just a reputation-conscious diva who has got worked up over an attempt to get people to buy chocolate. Civil rights group Operation Black Vote has been busily urging shoppers to boycott the products of Cadbury’s and its parent company Kraft. Spokesperson Simon Wooley was quite clear about the advert’s racist origins. ‘Racism in the playground starts with black children being called “chocolate bar”.’ Er, right…

Elsewhere, Lee Jasper, equalities adviser under former London mayor Ken Livingstone, has been just as quick to see the racism lurking amid the confectionery. ‘This issue is not just about the insult to Naomi Campbell. It’s about how these companies treat black people in general. Part of the problem is that they don’t see [the advert] as offensive.’ All of which prompted Cadbury’s to issue a statement that was embarrassing in its defensiveness: ‘It was certainly never our intention to cause any offence and the campaign itself is a light-hearted take on the social pretensions of Cadbury Dairy Milk Bliss.’

The problem with Cadbury’s defence is that in today’s climate of easy offence-taking it doesn’t matter what its intentions were. What matters, what trumps an individual’s or organisation’s conscious purpose, is the perception of others. So, if something is perceived to be offensive, if an advert is experienced as hurtful and insulting by someone somewhere, then that is enough for it to be considered offensive, hurtful and insulting. The viewpoint of others defines the meaning of something – in this case, an advert – not the intention of its producers.

This in-the-eye-of-the-beholder approach to racism was enshrined in the 1999 Macpherson Report into the police investigation of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. There, Macpherson provided a broad definition of racism as ‘unwitting racism’, a phenomenon that ‘can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’. Racism, as Macpherson defined it, had little to with any conscious racist intention. Rather racism can be attributed to ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or by any other person’.

It was a telling reformulation. Where once racism used to be a property of the acts of consciously racist agents – Paki-bashing, employment discrimination and so on – it is now the property of thoroughly unconscious actors. No wonder Cadbury’s press office was bemused – it didn’t even realise the extent of its company’s racism. Racism today doesn’t need willing actors; it has unwitting interlocutors. That a chocolate manufacturer now stands accused of propagating racist stereotypes shows the censorious depths to which official anti-racists and litigious celebrities are prepared to sink.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today