Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Just Slightly Ahead of Our Time

A few years ago, I assigned Scott a project as part of his Independent Study in computer programming. I knew someone who was the art director at a magazine, and it seemed that no matter what he did, someone was always complaining about the photos or illustrations he used.

“Not enough people of color.” “Not enough women.” “Not enough senior citizens.” “Too many people of color.” “Too many women.” “Are you trying to push some sort of multicultural agenda on us?” No matter what he did, he couldn’t win; people were always looking for some reason, some subtext, behind his choices of who to use in his photos.

And so I suggested to Scott that he write a program that would take the choices totally out of my friend’s hands. He would say how many people he wanted, and it would randomly spit out at him people of various ethnicities and sexes. And because I had Scott do the work of getting the proper demographic information, it would do it correctly. This meant that while it was still very likely that a group of three people would be three whites, it could well end up being two Asians and an African-American. It could be two males and a female, two females and a male, or all of one sex.

And no one could blame the computer for having any bias.

Well, after he demonstrated how well that program worked, I set him off to tackle another, similar, task. Couples. Most couples you see in magazines are mono-ethnic. You know, two whites, two blacks, two Asians. It was a big deal for me and my wife when we saw an interracial couple on the cover of the now-defunct Marriage Partnership magazine.

So now Scott’s job was to write a program that would spit out couples that were statistically likely to happen. Yes…85% of the time they’d be mono-ethnic, but 15% of the time…yes, a whopping 15% of the time (and I say that without a hint of my well-known sarcasm), they’d be inter-ethnic. That meant that 1 out of every 7 couples “wouldn’t match.” And it wouldn’t be because either Scott or I had a hidden agenda to force these couples on people. Our only agenda was to let art directors know how often they needed to use one of these couples in order to reflect reality.

Oh…and by the way, it wasn’t enough for his program to simply say that a couple was inter-ethnic, it had to say who was what. It had to be very specific.

Well, I’m guessing that most of you know where I’m going with this by now…that Cheerios ad. What! You haven’t seen the Cheerios ad with the adorable little girl in the interracial family that drew so much hate mail to the General Mills website that they had to disable comments? Well here it is:

One of the comments…one of the less hateful comments…talked about General Mills “trying to shove multiculturalism down our throats.” Well, excuse me, but multiculturalism is here. It no longer means an Italian-Norwegian wedding, but Italian-Vietnamese, Hispanic-Norwegian, African-American-Native-American, and so much more than the 57 varieties that Heinz is known for.

The question, though, is how to present the multiculturalism that exists without doing it heavy handedly. How to do it without looking like you have an agenda that you’re trying to “force down people’s throats.”

That’s where Scott’s program comes in. Frankly, I think he should shop this around to a few advertising agencies, touting the advantages of having a program that takes that decision totally out of your hands, and leaves it totally up to the computer…to the unbiased computer. Then when the hate mail comes in, the companies can simply respond, “It was the computer and the demographics.”

I wonder how the haters will respond then.