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.

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