A Subtle Racism in World Cup Advertising

So we're halfway through the first week of my First-Year Writing course themed: "Rhetorical and Discursive Constructions of the World Cup." It's probably too early to make evaluative assessments of the course design, but judging by the quality of student responses, interest seems to be high. Our first whole group assignment involved an analysis of ESPN's "Time Zone" commercial, which presents a series of vignettes of people from various World Cup nations gathering together with their friends and compatriots to watch some football. The message is obvious: the World Cup is a shared, global event that brings people together locally, and because of that, creates a shared, global identity. The affirming slogan, "Every 4 years the world has one time zone," which closes the ad, explicitly makes this argument.

To be fair, my initial response to this commercial was wholly positive. As a matter of fact, the "shared, global experience" narrative, including having to wake up at odd hours to watch a game, is one of the main reasons I enjoy the sport. Taken together, however, the messages of this commercial tell an interesting, and somewhat problematic, story.

You may notice some of the national representations presented in "Time Zone" from Western media's more cartooney stereotypes: Fans in Rio de Janeiro dance and cook food on a rooftop. English fans meet at a pub. In Ghana, men literally use a bicycle and a car battery to power a single, meager television set (no mention of the $10 million the Ghanaian government afforded the national team to help in their preparations). Subtle, atonal strings reinforce the image of Japanese fans. The script could almost writes itself, assuming the script based its understanding of non-US life strictly on the basest of generalizations.

According to my students, the more interesting messages involved the portions of the commercial showing how fans in the United States and Mexico participate in this global community. The single US fan, a white man based in Seattle, is seen running along the street, setting up his out-of-office voice mail. Working off cues of location, suit, gender, apparent age, and the fact that he was leaving work, students inferred that the character was comfortably employed at a tech or software firm. Conversely, the section based in Guadalajara, Mexico, shows a young boy running (hurried movement is a common theme across the scenes) an extension cord through the city streets, tossing it over a wall to his friend's yard where food is cooking on the grill. (In Mexico, as in Ghana, fans must improvise to get access to electricity, apparently.)

For certain, borrowing power via extension chords is a lived reality for some residents of Mexico - but it's also a reality for people living in the United States. My students recognized this, and initially viewed these representations as examples of many possible realities. However, it is unlikely that all, or even many, US-based audiences would read this commercial with such nuance. Instead, a binary of economic class is created, with the US framed as economically superior. This is not insignificant, nor is it a coincidence.

According to Alsup (2001), "each culture, to some extent, misunderstands the other and thus defines it through a series of stereotypical lenses that don't accurately reflect reality" (p. 42). From that perspective, it can be presumed that a large portion of ESPN's viewers will interpret the representations of Mexico and the other nations in this commercial as indicative of the entirety of those nations and people.

This is how discourse can functionally reproduce racism.

While the larger themes of ESPN's "Time Zone" commercial are positive ones - unity, camaraderie, shared interest, etc. - the subtler messages portraying ethnic, racial, and national stereotypes ossify over time and can prove harmful when uncritically presented and reproduced.

Alsup, J. (2001). An English educator speaks across a disciplinary "Contact zone." English Education, 34(1), 31-49.


Teaching Writing through the World Cup

The original plan called for me to teach a dedicated section of Rhetoric & Composition I as part of the Department of Engineering's bridge program. (R&CI is the first part of the FYC sequence in the Writing Program at the University of Texas - Pan American.) This bridge program, partially funded by an NFS grant, would provide select students transitioning from high school with an opportunity to get a head start on their college course work. But Engineering wants the class taught during the Summer II session, when I'll be out of town. Naturally, I found this out just a couple weeks ago, and so I passed the course design off to another instructor, and went about swiftly developing a new design for the traditional R&CI course section I would be assigned to. Not wanting to simply plug in the course I had designed and used earlier in the year (which would have been easy enough - mostly just revise the calendar), I decided now would be as good a time as any to try out something I've been wanting to do since I got into the profession: teach a course themed on the World Cup.

This is not just an excuse to watch the games during class time (although, we most definitely will). It's an honest attempt to blend a significant contemporary cultural event into my approach to FYC, which relies on elements of discourse communities, genre study, and social justice pedagogy. Furthermore, events like the FIFA World Cup are ripe for critical investigation because they rely heavily on concepts of identification, capital, simulacra, and yes, rhetoric. (In some ways, I used the University of Kentucky's Craft Writing project as a model for thinking about this course design - just don't tell Jeff Rice.) Therefore, I contend that the World Cup, and soccer more generally, can serve as a useful vehicles for investigating objectives common across most college writing courses. In fact, there already exists a line of scholarship about the beautiful game as an academic topic, although admittedly little of it has focused specifically on writing. So, while acknowledging the disciplinary strain insisting FYC courses act as RhetComp intro courses emphasize writing about writing, I also want to capitalize on the idea that students are more engaged in writing work when they have a topical interest in what their writing about. Longer term goals include fleshing out potential usages of global football as a metaphor for teaching, thinking about, and doing writing.

A bit more about that "contemporary cultural event" concept: A significant part of my teaching is to help students use writing to move into the disciplinary communities they hope to enter into as professionals. With regards to the World Cup, it is likely that few, if any, of my students will formally move into that particular community, but I would counter that in many ways, some are likely already a part of it - as ardent followers of particular teams and as practitioners of the game itself. Even if not on the pitch, members announce themselves as part of this community through a variety of shared and individual discursive acts, including supporters groups, blogging, visual art, naming practices, national identification, gender performance, and social media, among other things. In fact, I would argue that world football fans are a larger part of their discourse community than most professionals are with the communities related to their jobs - there is is an investment based on cultural, familial, and identity, and not simply economic transaction, that permeates the global football culture, and I think that's important.

Here's the link to the current version of the course syllabus. Take a look, if you like, and tell me what you think, challenge my claims, and offer suggestions in the comments section below. If you'd like to participate in some way (such as responding to students via Twitter), please let me know that, too, and we'll figure something out.

Rhetoric & Composition I: Rhetorical & Discursive Constructions of the World Cup