Super Bowl Sunday isn’t just the occasion National Footbal League’s championship: it’s the advertising industry’s biggest holiday, too, as firms go all-out to create spots that will break out when they air before the largest remaining national television audience. A great ad can define a brand for years to come. And creating a terrific commercial can also help put an advertising firm on the map.
The attention to ads that air during the game has prompted other brands and organization who can’t afford the staggeringly high ad fees those slots command to piggyback on the holiday. Often, these ads reflect the fact that the organizations make them have limited budgets. But this one, from the National Congress of American Indians, is something else entirely:
It’s a gorgeous ad, and it’s a strikingly effective illustration of why the word “Redskin” is so troublesome. It’s not just that the term has evolved from its origins as a basic explanation of physical difference, to a slur that was used to reduce Native Americans to the value of their skins, for which literal bounties were offered. In a less violent but no less significant sense, “Redskin” collapses the remarkable particularity of Native American experiences into a single identity and set of attributes.
The NCAI ad is a forceful and often beautiful reminder that Native Americans aren’t a monolithic community. That’s a term that subsumes hundreds of specific identities, a huge range of cultural and artistic practices–and yes, as the ad doesn’t neglect to leave out–specific sets of social and political issues.
“Native American” may be a blanket identity category, but it’s one that invites curiosity, asking hearers to consider what came before the political and territorial consolidation of the United States, and the fact that American identity is rich and multifaceted, rather than a single way of being. “Redskins” is both a slur, and a term that invites the listener to skip over the work of thinking about what it means. “Redskin” reduces Native Americans to simply the color of their skin, and to the attributes we associate with football (a practice that’s also a product of a very specific marketing history, as my colleague Travis Waldron reported in his epic look at the fight against the Washington football team’s name): physical strength, maybe speed, and not much else. Not only is that kind of thinking profoundly lazy and racially reductive, it’s a tragedy both for the people who are subjected to it, and the people who deny themselves the experience of more of the world by practicing it.
The NCAI ad is a reminder of precisely what they’re missing out on, making all of these points without having to spell them out the way I do here. That’s great advertising, in service of a critically important message.