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The Intel Ad That Was Recently Pulled: From an Art Historian’s Perspective

Posted by gninja on August 11, 2007

In the words of art historian Albert Boime: art “helps shape ideas, define social attitudes, and fix stereotypes”; “images…serve as instruments of persuasion and control.”

It’s with these words in mind that I approach the Intel advertisement that was recently pulled:


The superficial idea the ad-men were attempting to communicate through this image is that the khaki-clad man is the employee or manager, and the sprinting men (actually, a single man replicated) represents the speed of the new intel core 2 duo processor. Smug, knowing employee, proud of his new computer. And a “processor” crouched and ready to zip away at the speed of lightning.

The ad was promptly pulled “after racial backlash“.

(As an aside, what the hell is a “racial backlash” anyway? Very strange choice of words.)

Trawling through some online chatter about the removal, I was disappointed to find the same kind of response over and over and over again.


The first response above was the most common kind I saw– accusing people of oversensitivity and rampant political correctness (a phrase which makes me want to gouge out my own eyes– since the 1990s, it’s been a key rhetorical tool of the Conservative Right, who fling the term at someone in order to halt any kind of reasonable debate. It sucker-punches a conversation about one issue into an immature squabble over semantics.)

The second response, though, was alo quite common in the forums. Contrary to what “VolleyJeff” intended with this remark, though, it brilliantly proves how accustomed Americans now are to image of superior whites and the subordinate Other. It has become utterly naturalized. And when I use the term “naturalized” I’m pointedly referring to its meaning in semiotics, or, as Daniel Chandler paraphrases from Roland Barthe’s essays in Image Music Text:

From such a perspective denotation can be seen as no more of a ‘natural’ meaning than is connotation but rather as a process of naturalization. Such a process leads to the powerful illusion that denotation is a purely literal and universal meaning which is not at all ideological, and indeed that those connotations which seem most obvious to individual interpreters are just as ‘natural’.

Getting back to VolleyJeff’s response, then. Yes, absolutely, seeing such an image with the races of its characters reversed would raise questions and perhaps eyebrows. But not because the image as it is represents the natural order of things, but rather because we have become increasingly conditioned over the years to seeing whites in a position of superiority and blacks in a position of subordination. Images have played an important role in reinforcing this notion of racial disparity.


( Thomas Nast, “Slaves Being Emancipated”, 1863).

Note the white man in the center and the former slaves surrounding him. The white man in the foreground is the hero of the image, with the former slaves bowing their thanks to him.


Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Sale, 1861.


A Confederate $10 note, 1861.

(I could go on with the images, but I think these suffice.)

No, the Intel ad is not inherently racist. But it absolutely becomes racist after centuries of images insisting upon the black man’s rightful place at the feet of the white man until it’s become so naturalized that we think those images represent a natural condition.

Posted in advertising, art, barthes, semiotics | 2 Comments »