When Microsoft attempts racial profiling

Last week the web was all atwitter aflutter about Microsoft’s poor photoshopping skills.

And the fact that they had to resort to photoshopping in the first place. And a certain something that didn’t get photoshopped.

Accusations of racism, sexism, ethnicism, and stigmatisation were flung as far and wide as traditional and new media coverage from Argentina to Zimbabwe permitted.

Clearly, a lot of black males were outraged and a many a white male may have felt patronised but were it not merely the benign demographic republic of geekdom that ultimately was insulted, this minor tempest in a tea cup could easily have become a global shitstorm in a Polish pisspot.

Most people probably just shook their heads and laughed.

Well, what likely happened was that sometime last year (based on the 2008 © notice) Microsoft had someone design a suitable web page for their Business Productivity Infrastructure product, “a unified infrastructure that simplifies the way your people communicate, share expertise, gain business insight and find information.”

To further describe the BPI product and flesh out the page, the designer added a standard stock photo featuring three people sitting in a board room, sporting wide and silly grins at whatever they’re being shown via a projector.

Note my use of the term “people”. The advert uses it, too.

Unsuitable demographic

The offending picture is a nice, generic, neutral, bland, unexciting, nondescript, non-provocative, brand-unspecific (and, dare I say, “politically-correct”) photo of a random bunch of white-collar workers/executives (read: people) sitting in a meeting somewhere… almost anywhere, in fact.

It can safely be said that whoever created the image for use as a stock photo did it with maximum saleability to a western market in mind. Heck, they could’ve sold toothpaste or office furniture with that picture if they wanted to!

Additionally, the well-known fact that Microsoft is a US-American company remains nothing but a subconscious little piece of detail. It should end right there. The prospective customer of BPI would most likely click on one of the many links on the page, and that’s it.

So far, so good: Standard website design practices and marketing techniques, and most any rational human being on this planet wouldn’t waste a second thought on the photo itself.

Potential East Asian customers might notice that there happens to be a Korean-looking guy sitting at the table, and that’s that. African customers might be pleased that there’s an “African-American” sitting in on this round, and that should also be that. Most male customers would be ogling the attractive woman anyway, and that’s that, too, all being fully aware that this could be a very random demographic breakdown of the people (note that word again) attending a typical presentation in a typical “western” country like Canada, the UK, New Zealand, France, or elsewhere.

The picture could even be realistic representation of the boardroom meeting of some random American company’s office in downtown Nairobi or Kingston.

And we don’t know who else sits around the table. Nor does it matter.

Were the photo a “true representation” of any demographic, a naïve spaceman might conclude that a full third of the planet’s population had brown skin and grey hair. Another third had slanted eyes and black hair while only a third would be female, leading our spaceman to wonder if in the next panel of this comic the two males would be fighting to the death over who has mating rights with the one female with rounder eyes and pinker skin. Rational humans know this to be rubbish.

Sometime this year (again based on the © notice) Microsoft decides it’s time to unleash the BPI product on the Polish populace, and the original U.S. page’s design and layout are simply translated. Again, this is perfectly standard practice — were it not for one teensy bitty piece of overzealous detail.

Polska rasizmem?

True to the Polish stereotype, something rather stupid happened on the way to the webserver: Those three random people in the original photo have been adjusted to become three typical people, supposedly more closely resembling Poland’s population demographic.

And that’s how the brown stuff hit the fan.

No, it’s not only the poor photoshopping that had the online community amused, it’s the fact that the head of the man with negroid features was replaced by the head of a man with Caucasoid features. Adding injury to insult is the minor oversight that the white guy still has a very dark-skinned hand despite basking in the glow of what appears to be an Apple laptop (another spot of irony) which must be assumed to be not in any power-saving mode… how not green! How un-PC!

The black guy wasn’t good enough to appear on the same page as the white woman and the Korean guy and therefore had to be replaced… Aaaargh! Why not replace the Asian guy? Blatant racism! C’mon, how un-PC is that?! Shock! Horror! Let’s all boycott Microsoft and NOT buy Windows 7, the less than 1% black population of Poland has been gravely insulted! [/sarcasm]

The gaffe with the multi-cultural hand aside, what would have happened if the original picture had two white guys in it and they were replaced by black heads for, say, Microsoft’s Angolan site or for one of the Congos? Or, a little less ominous to round-eyed folks, what would happen if the original picture featured a couple of Chinese people and they got “upgraded” to Japanese? Would anyone complain?

“Poland doesn’t feel pressured to pander to the whiny babies of the world by including one of every race in the picture.”

Our spaceman, meanwhile, is gathering data which suggests that humans with slanted eyes would rather have round eyes and that those with white skin seem to carry some sort of burden towards the darker-skinned varieties.

Microsoft screwed up big time, and not for the first time either. They’ve since looked “into the details of this situation” and “pulled down the image”.

But perhaps the joke’s on us. Viral advertising works wonders.

As with most products ranging from shampoo and cereal to sporting accessories, any pictorial representation or accompaniment will feature people (yes, that word again) who represent the product and/or appeal to the likely customers — a specific demographic — be it based on age, gender, religion, skin colour, “ethnic homogeneity”, or height.

Or the broadest possible demographic.

It’s basic advertising, marketing and psychology 101… or is there any sense in having a picture of an Irish ginger-head on a box of “Black Like Me” shampoo? Isn’t it obvious why car adverts and motor shows almost always include non-related accessories in the fine forms of beautiful babes?

In fact, would you buy a second-hand basket ball from an Italian midget?

Fuck, yeah!

Why? ‘cos it probably didn’t see much action on a court which explains why you’re likely to find a black dude advertising Spalding products, and not some overweight redneck named Bubba.

Was that a racist statement? Nope. Just a reminder that we’re all people… divergent, different people, each with our own distinctly positive and negative traits in the eyes of those of another race.

Just as lies have truth as their foundation, so do stereotypes.

Consider this the next time when, after you’ve discussed your finances with your Jewish broker who wears a Swiss watch and drives a German car, you go order from the Italian or Indian bloke around the corner.

Or McDonald’s, for that matter: Their burgers taste equally shit no matter where you are on this planet, all the while promoting racial exclusivity by being “proud to support United Negro College Fund and Thurgood Marshall College Fund”.


McDonald’s has branched out to the African-American community nourishing it with valuable programs and opportunities.

Generous. Charitable. Noble. And seemingly exclusive to African-Americans. Where’s 365white.com or 365latino.com? African-Asians (they exist), Caribbean-Americans or South Americans of Brazilian nationality aren’t included in this little club, indirectly suggesting that the “African-American community” needs some guidance, in the process belittling people for being… well, black? Tsk, tsk!

And today also marks the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland — the beginning of WWII.

Meanwhile, our spaceman is considering blasting the planet to make space for an intergalactic highway. Good idea.


Photo credits: Microsoft, McDonald’s, elsewhere

This entry was posted in Internet and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.