The Yellow Pages campaign makes it onto CBC. But for all the wrong reasons. Bibimbap is a rice dish. And the visual shows noodles. As tweeter @edwaan points out. Another commenter on Facebook helpfully explained: "Think about having the copy about the best pasta in town and the icon is pizza. It's that weird."

This post is a slightly expanded version of the opinion piece I wrote for New Canadian Media in May 2015.

There are inherent dangers and risks in launching an ethnic channel or publication. In recent times we have seen both new players and well established ones ride into the sunset.

Mehndi TV made a comet-like appearance, flashed across our airwaves for a year, only to fade to black. That was a couple of years ago. It has since appeared in another constellation – on the website for Channel Zero.

Multimedia Nova, a publishing group whose newspapers included the 59-year-old Corriere Canadese shut its presses in 2013.

The 53-year-old Canadian Jewish News shut down its print edition and went all-digital in 2013.

But the Omni announcement makes me wonder if something else is at play here.

I wonder, for instance, if Omni was “too ethnic”? In other words, did Omni take an oversimplified content strategy with the ethnic consumer?

Allow me to explain. There is too often a rush to dumb down our understanding of Canada’s multicultural markets. Too often, ethnic consumer targets are rendered into shapeless homogenized blobs that bear no resemblance to what is actually a much more finely nuanced, multi-faceted cultural reality. A content or advertising strategy created for these fictional language-centric monoliths produces fuzzy, undefined work that has little appeal or relevance.

It is tempting to limit or define foreign cultures by language just because it makes it more convenient to sell airtime or diapers or haircuts or oranges but this is both facile and dangerous. After all, there are cultures united by language and separated by geography and, equally, cultures separated by language and united by geography. Add religion and history and we start to see an incredibly complex mosaic. There is rich irony in the mental visual of senior Omni TV executives closing their eyes to this.

Worse, this oversimplification is often combined with an attempt to keep new Canadians in their ethnic boxes. To do this is to deny the powerful narrative contained in the immigrant journey and to forget the impact that becoming Canadian has on the immigrant life. A Chinese citizen in China is not the same person as a Chinese Canadian citizen in Canada.

The words over the Queen Street viaduct remind us “the river I step in is not the river I stand in.” As we make our way in Canada, Canada changes us. And we change Canada. This is powerful stuff that is rich territory for original content.

In fact I think Omni could have significantly helped its cause by taking a leaf out of CBC’s book by using original Canadian content in the official languages to target the multicultural Canadian viewer. And, by that, I mean the Canadian viewer.

I look at CBC’s HNIC play-by-play sportscasts in Punjabi and Mandarin and shows like Little Mosque – very diverse programming that reflects a very diverse reality – and I ask, why couldn’t we see more of that?

We have an amazing talent pool in multicultural Canada. There’s a multicultural renaissance going on. Right now, the Tarragon Theatre is staging an Indo-Canadian version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado and it’s been getting rave reviews. We have writers like MG Vassanji, Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry, Vincent Lam. We have  comics like Russell Peters, Mikey Bustos, Ron Josol and Sugar Sammy. Bands like Delhi 2 Dublin, artists like Ritesh Das. This is not a country with a shortage of multicultural content.

Rogers is a sophisticated media-and-message convergence advocate and a successful player in that game, so I find it difficult to accept that it is allowing its investment to fail so easily. 

I feel Omni really had a good thing going with its newscasts, but was shocked when they dropped the South Asian news in English a couple of years ago. Almost every South Asian I knew watched it.

I felt then, that it had stepped off an edge and was suspended momentarily in mid-air. Now it plummets.

Tesco makes a generous donation to our library of multicultural mistakes, with this Ramadan blunder: bacon flavoured chips on a stand with the message Ramadan Mubarak.

The scene of the marketing crime? The Tesco store on Liverpool Street in London, not far from Whitechapel's East London Mosque, one of the largest Muslim places of worship in Europe. An amused Muslim shopper saw the stand and tweeted it and it quickly rippled through the twitterverse, before the chips were moved.

Who moved the Pringles? Tesco. To their credit they acknowledged their mistake and issued a statement:

We are proud to offer a wide range of meals and products to meet the needs of our customers during Ramadan. We recognise these Pringles weren’t in the most suitable place and our store colleagues have now moved them.

As I've commented elsewhere before, marketing and advertising are all about perception and persuasion. Consumer opinion both reflects and affects brand perception.

Interestingly, some of the reaction in marketing circles has been less on the mark than Tesco's.

One media professional defended the mistake saying "if you walk down to any large Tesco you will be surprised to see the number of Muslims picking up this product" - a classic reactive defence based on anecdotal evidence.

We have to be cautious with such evidence when acting as professional counsel to our clients. I have observed some of my (devout but heterodox) Muslim friends indulge in a dram of Scotch from time to time, but it would be an act of insanity for me to recommend to an alcohol client that she begin advertising Eid specials on Scotch based on my observation.

Another commenter observed, "I believe you are from India" and reminded me that there are Muslims there who sell alcohol during Ramadan.

Yes, I am from India, but my knowledge of the actions of individual Muslims cannot be used to explain away a marketing error. Marketing for the most part is a social-risk-averse, share-building discipline in which marketers tend not to risk slim brand marketing budgets on the behaviour of the individual, but rather to invest on the preferences of majorities so as to achieve success on a scale shareholders can go out to dinner on.

Niche brands - like hedge funds - often swim the other way but it is rare for a large brand to do such a thing. When it happens, without all the accompanying fanfare, one can be relatively certain it was a mistake. I'm no fan of political correctness in a conversation, but would think it horrifying in our times, if a brand were to use that to excuse the ignorance, laziness or negligence that produced a racist or sexist advertising message.

Our business is all about influencing consumer perception positively.

This focus is often lost in these days of mindless network ad distribution and aggregation, when the motto seems to be "anything goes as long as it goes everywhere" – placing a premium on efficiency of distribution over the effectiveness of the message distributed.

In reality, the wrong ad placed in the wrong medium or the wrong product placed on the wrong shelf could easily leave a bad taste in the mouth.

This is surely not something Tesco intended. A single act of thoughtless product selection on its part resulted in it knocking over its own well-meant Ramadan display.

Tesco's Pringles mistake was neither racist or sexist - it was just dumb - and, I believe, just a mistake.

Like selling combs to bald men. Yes, there will always be a few vain men who buy combs for that single lonely strand they nurse. But most bald men will either treat the message like unaddressed mail or feel insulted by its utter thoughtlessness.

Neither response is the desired response.


Gavin Barrett is Ideawallah at Barrett and Welsh, a Toronto agency that specializes in the new Canada, a magical place where all cultures are understood, shared and enjoyed.
I worked at Leo Burnett Hong Kong in the mid-90s as an associate creative director, shortly after Stefan Sagmeister's and Stuart D'Rozario's time there. I took the spot Stuart vacated when he went to Cole and Webber. It was a magical time and one of my magical clients was United Airlines. 

I wrote a campaign for them that called for a subtle anti-advertising take on what made them special and my art director Ferdy Van Alphen and I, felt photojournalism was the only way to do it.
We contracted Bruno Barbey, the Magnum legend, to shoot the campaign and it turned out to be a bit of an award winner. I even hired a few of my friends as talent for a couple of shots when the local Indian talent pool ran dry briefly. 

Bruno was a soft spoken but intense man who endeared himself to me forever when he admitted he chose to do the book on my hometown Bombay for Time-Life's iconic series, rather than Bangkok.
Bruno Barbey made our campaign incredibly powerful because he made it incredibly real in a human way, a gift that informs all his photographs.  

Bruno has shot war and peace with equal insight and here are few photographic fragments that show how he uses colour and composition to bring the human into focus.

Note: All copyright belongs to the artists/owners of the copyrights themselves.

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