microsoft diversity, microsoft diversity controversy, microsoft photoshopped ad
Paul Sakuma/AP
The Microsoft logo is seen at the company's
exhibit at the Consumer Electronics Show
in Las Vegas.

Microsoft Photoshops Out Diversity for Polish Ad, Sparking Race Controversy

August 27, 2009 06:00 PM
by Jill Marcellus
Microsoft has apologized for replacing a black man’s head with that of a white man in a promotional photo on its Polish Web site, but concerns linger over diversity in advertising.

Race Retouched

Sitting together and smiling over the slogan, “Empower your people with the IT tools they need,” an Asian man, an African-American man and a white woman harmoniously appear in a promotional photo on Microsoft’s U.S. Web site. When that same trio smiled over a translated slogan on the company’s Polish Web site, however, the black man’s head had been digitally exchanged for a younger white man’s face, reported BBC News.

The picture’s poor editing made the gaffe more embarrassing for Microsoft, since the white man’s head was simply perched atop the original African American’s body, with his distinctly black hand still intact.

Microsoft has already apologized and removed the offending photo, and a spokeswoman in Poland insisted that, “We are a multiracial company and there isn’t a chance any of us are racist,” according to The Times of London.  She claimed that the photo’s editors had already left the company before the uproar arose.

While controversy often crops up when race meets Photoshop, other recent snafus have caught advertisers overplaying, not whitewashing, diversity. Researchers at Augsburg College found, Inside Higher Ed reported last year, that “more than 75 percent of colleges appeared to overrepresent black students in viewbooks,” sometimes with the help of Photoshop.  Similarly, the official Toronto Fun Guide made headlines earlier this summer for its digitally diversified cover, which replaced a Latino father with a black man in a family picture, according to Allison Hanes of the Canadian paper National Post.  Toronto officials insisted that it was an “inclusive” act, obeying a 2008 policy to “show diversity” in city publications.

These incidents fit into a larger movement toward “visual diversity” in advertising. By juxtaposing different racial groups in ads, advertisers hope to appeal to multiple audiences at once, MSNBC explained, while also “conveying a message that corporate America is not just ‘in touch,’ racially speaking, but inclusive.”  According to Melanie Shreffler, editor of advertising newsletter Marketing to the Emerging Majorities, America’s shifting demographics dictate this trend. Shreffler told MSNBC that advertisers “aren’t turning out multicultural ads for the good of society,” but rather they “recognize there is money involved” in marketing to America’s rapidly expanding minority groups.

Microsoft’s blunder, rather than contradicting Shreffler’s analysis, may confirm it.  Unlike America, where Microsoft displayed the multicultural photo intact, Poland is ethnically homogenous, with almost 97 percent of its people identifying as Polish, according to the C.I.A. World Factbook.

Background: Ad industry’s history of discrimination issues

Earlier this month, BMW’s advertiser sparked its own racially-driven controversy when it excluded “urban” radio, traditionally associated with African-American audiences, as a market for its Mini Cooper advertisements, findingDulcinea reported.  “No urban dictates,” defined by The Washington Times as a policy “issued by companies who associate urban listeners with a lifestyle that they are trying to avoid,” have been banned by the Federal Communications Commission.

Although the company apologized, the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters insisted that the incident “raises the uncomfortable specter of a corporate culture that condones discriminatory practices.” 

They are not the only ones to accuse the ad industry of a discriminatory culture, despite industry initiatives to promote diversity. The Madison Avenue Project, a collaboration launched earlier this year between the NAACP and civil rights law firm Mehri & Skalet, found that African Americans earn 20 percent less than whites in advertising, and that the gap between black and white employment in the ad industry is 38 percent greater than in the overall labor market.

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