Is This Ad Offensive?

Harcum College has a campaign in which a woman appears headed to a health profession and a black man is shown in a suit with a basketball. Is this a perpetuation of stereotypes?

November 10, 2014

On its Facebook page, Harcum College boasts about its new ad campaign in which 23 buses in Philadelphia have ads that pose the question "Headed in the Right Direction?" and encourage potential students to look at the college. A woman in the ad seems to be headed to a health profession. But a black man in the ad, in a suit, holds a basketball and poses in front of a basketball net.

The ad set off a debate on Twitter this weekend, with many accusing Harcum of perpetuating stereotypes about black men.

Nyasha Junior, assistant professor of Hebrew Bible and Old Testament at the Howard University School of Divinity, set off this debate with a comment on Twitter: "@HarcumCollege Why is this Black man holding a basketball in your ad?"

Junior's tweet led many others to weigh in, most of them critically. Some of the comments: "Aww man, I'm so TIRED of the 'basketball' stereo-type," "A lazy and insensitive form of advertising insinuating Black men excel in athletics above all other fields" and (with a bit of sarcasm) "I'm guessing he's a physicist that's really interested in perfecting the jump shot."

Harcum responded on Twitter by inviting Junior to talk, but she tweeted back that she wanted to see a public statement from the college, since the bus ads are themselves a public statement.

This prompted Harcum to post a response from Urick Lewis, dean of student life. He wrote that the college was proud of, and wanted to promote, both its sports management program and its basketball team, and noted that 42 percent of students at Harcum are black.

"As leaders in higher education, we are sensitive to the importance of encouraging minority students to achieve and excel in all fields. The broad spectrum of our communications and outreach advertising includes images of men and women, black, white, Asian, and Hispanic," he wrote. "We are always willing to engage in thoughtful discussion on key societal issues such as how minority students are represented in advertising but I find criticism of this particular ad to be lacking in context. Hopefully those who review this information will have a deeper understanding of our efforts to tell the world about Harcum College."

It is unclear whether that explanation will end the criticism. Wrote one commenter on Twitter: "When an ad needs this much explanation, the problem lies w/in. Images speak to and articulate structures of knowledge."

Via email, Junior said that she happened to see the Harcum ads when she was in Philadelphia and so shot a photo and shared on Twitter.

She said she didn't think the college's answer resolved the concern. "The response was telling in that it indicated that the ad promoted both their sports management program and their basketball team," she said. "I think that Harcum College should be more careful given the negative stereotypes of African-American men as excelling in athletics but not in academics."


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