Is Toyota's Use of White Rappers in a Minivan Ad Racist?

Last Updated May 5, 2010 12:47 PM EDT

Toyota (TM)'s new commercial for its Sienna minivan is the at least the sixth recent TV spot to use a bunch of uptight white people rapping as if they were gangstas from the hood (video below). On the one hand, hip-hop culture is ubiquitous in American culture, so this can be easily dismissed as a trendy parody.

But on the other, the joke in all the ads is that the characters are white but everything they're doing appears black -- or at least underlines how non-black they are. In other words, these ads are only funny if you accept their stereotypical premise: That black Americans like to chant songs about their hustler lifestyles while white people mostly don't. Other companies that have made rap parody ads recently include Procter & Gamble (PG) and Smirnoff.

Christine Huang, head of cultural trends at Globalhue, an ad agency specializing in campaigns that target minorities, dislikes these ads. She wrote about a Taco Bell ad that spoofed Puff Daddy's 1998 song "All about the Benjamins" from agency DraftFCB:

Yep, that's the punchline: white people acting, dancing, and rapping like rap stars -- mocking this culture that so contrasts their own. What a hilariously clever twist.
She called a set of regional ads for Chicago-Lake Liquors in Minneapolis "blatantly racially charged." In those spots white people talk like ghetto thugs, until they're caught by their minority neighbors and colleagues:
In this case, the raceplay is boldly farcical. Who is Chicago-Lake Liquors trying to appeal to here? Who are we supposed to be laughing at? Why?
That's the case for the prosecution. And it's a strong one: View the video gallery below and it dawns on you -- the joke here is that there's no black people in the ads. It's a modern take on blackface or "minstrelsy," as Huang puts it.

Or is it? These ads aren't supposed to be viewed together. They're supposed to be seen in isolation, or at least at random. Judging them without context seems unfair. And the context here is the aforementioned ubiquity of rap and hip hop. It's the dominant music of the last two decades. A majority of hip hop sales are to white people. The artists may be black, but the culture is mainstream American.

Hip hop is therefore ripe for parody in just the same way that everything that becomes successful is, whether it's Goldman Sachs, Tiger Woods or The Real Housewives of New Jersey. To argue that hip hop should be off limits from mockery would accord it a victim status that it doesn't deserve -- hip hop rules pop music. Besides, hip hop has plenty of spoof-provoking material. These ads aren't funny because they mock black people, they're funny because they mock a small number of performers who want us to take them seriously when they celebrate drug dealing, killing and prostitution.

But don't take my word for it. Decide for yourself:

Toyota's Sienna" "Swagger Wagon" Taco Bell: "It's All About the Roosevelts Baby" Chicago-Lake Liquors: "That is pimp-tight!"/"Fo' Shaka My Cracker"/"Gary" Baskin-Robbins: "Ice Cream and Cake" P&G's Bounty: "The baddest PT" Smirnoff: "Tea Partay" Related: