America Takes Note Of Racial Insensitivity In Media

The automaker Acura issued an apology Wednesday after the casting call sheet for its Superbowl commercial with Jerry Seinfeld leaked on the web. The commercial makers called for an African-American who was "not too dark." The same day, two Nashville men filed a class action lawsuit against ABC's The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, accusing the company of blocking minority contestants on the reality-TV dating franchise. Audie Cornish talks to Tampa Bay Times commentator and TV critic Eric Deggans about what the incidents say about racial sensitivity in our culture.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The automaker Acura yesterday issued an apology after the casting call sheet for its Super Bowl commercial with Jerry Seinfeld leaked on the Web. The commercial makers called for an African American who was not too dark.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN ACURA AD)

JERRY SEINFELD: I want it. I would love to have the first one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm so sorry, Mr. Seinfeld, but you're number two on the list.

SEINFELD: Who's number one?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That guy.

SEINFELD: OK.

CORNISH: On the same day, two Nashville men filed a class action lawsuit against ABC's "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," accusing it of blocking minority contestants on the reality-TV dating franchise. Here's their lawyer.

CYRUS MEHRI: This is about purposeful discrimination. How do you explain zero for 23 in the 23 seasons of this show? How do explain no Hispanic, no Asian-American, no African American lead roles on this show. They can't explain it.

CORNISH: And this, just weeks after Burger King's apology for an ad featuring singer Mary J. Blige and fried chicken hit the Web.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BURGER KING AD)

MARY J. BLIGE: (Singing) Crispy chicken, fresh lettuce, three cheeses...

CORNISH: Issues of race and sensitivity, or a lack of it, are a perennial for TV and advertising executives. But the rapid backlash generated by these latest incidents has us turning to Tampa Bay Times commentator and TV critic Eric Deggans.

Welcome, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So is this political correctness run amok? Or are we, as a culture, less accepting of racial insensitivity on the small screen, at least?

DEGGANS: Well, I got to say listening to that Burger King commercial, I felt like I was listening to a "Saturday Night Live" parody or something. I mean, I definitely think the boundaries of discussion have shifted. And there is more of a willingness, I think, to talk about these issues, think about these issues than we've seen before. And that's one reason why these issues become such big controversies, because not just people of color are worried about this. Everybody is a little worried about how we talk about each other.

CORNISH: And it seems like these things totally get whipped up into a frenzy on the Web. I mean, social media, people can complain, get support and go after the companies so quickly. Is that really what's different here, just...

DEGGANS: Most definitely. What we're seeing, number one, is that people are able to talk about these commercials, tweet out links, embed them on their Facebook pages and blogs, and it really gets the conversation going.

The other thing that's happening here is that we have businesses that have their own Facebook pages. They have their own Twitter outreach, and they're able to see these negative comments just pile up. So, you know, when Burger King puts out a commercial and it just starts to stack up all this negative commentary on their Facebook page, well, they have an incentive to act quickly; quicker than maybe we're used to seeing.

CORNISH: One thing I want to, you know, just sort of argue for here is I feel like when I turn on the TV, I do see more diversity in the ads. And, for instance, that Mary J. Blige ad, you know, it was a rough cut that was released early. They apologized for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: Right.

CORNISH: The fact is there was a black actor in that car commercial, maybe where there wouldn't have been one at all in the past. And, you know, as for "The Bachelor" thing, give me a break. Like...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...we've been watching 23 seasons of this. You had to know that your chances aren't good. I mean, are people being too picky?

DEGGANS: Well, I do think that commercials are much more diverse than, say, network television or cable television. And advertising has always been a little further ahead of the curve. And what we're seeing now is these conversations that I think people of color especially have always kind of had in their barbershops or with their friends. Man, did you see that commercial? You know, did you hear what they said? Or haven't you noticed that "The Bachelor" has never had any person of color?

You know, we are having these conversations, and now, they're coming into the mainstream of media, in part, because of social media and in part because everyone, I think, is a little more interested in talking about this stuff. And I think that's really important.

CORNISH: Lastly, what's the take away message for executives, either in advertising or TV?

DEGGANS: I think the take away is that it's not enough to just have a person of color sitting in a commercial, or just have one of your roles be filled by a person of color. You have to the kind of understand diversity a little better than that. You have to be a little more sensitive to how what you're doing comes across. And...

CORNISH: Like people's expectations are higher, it sounds like.

DEGGANS: People's expectations are a little higher. And people just expect to see real life reflected fairly. If you're going to have a person of color inside a commercial, just make sure it's a person of color that we like looking at.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: You don't have to worry about the color - you don't have to worry about how dark they are. You know?

CORNISH: Right. Right. Or that it's not going to every stereotype in the book.

DEGGANS: Exactly. And with "The Bachelor," I think it's high time that they had a person of color on that show. It's time for "The Bachelor" to include everyone.

CORNISH: Tampa Bay Times commentator and TV critic Eric Deggans. Thank you so much for coming in to talk to us.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

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