INK_BLAST | TREND WATCH: AMBIGUOUSLY ETHNIC ON TV
By Juleyka Lantigua
Some of my friends have looked sideways at me, or burst out laughing when I’ve declared someone on TV looks “ambiguously ethnic.” At first, my friends looked at me like I’d been possessed by the spirit of a closeted racist or one of the devout self-haters among us. Thankfully, I have been allowed to explain…
When I say that someone—usually in a TV commercial, billboard, magazine ad or any other type of mass media—looks ambiguously ethnic I mean that they have certain physical attributes that in this society have come to be associated with someone who belongs to an ethnic group—Latino, Black, Asian, Native American and so on. Or, in many case, like they are of mixed heritage.
So maybe they have curly dark hair. Or almond-shaped eyes. Or nice caramel or olive complexion. (Gotta love the food analogies related to looking ethnic.) Maybe they have naturally full lips or well-set noses. Maybe their faces are just a tad flat or oblong or round or hexagonal. You get the idea: they definitely do not look white.
The kicker is that you cannot readily shove them into any of the ethnic groups you pride yourself in a) belonging to, b) being aware of, or c) being down with. Hence, the person looks ambiguously ethnic.
You know they belong somewhere, but can’t use your advanced cultural GPS to designate their exact ethnic geography. What’s more, a part of you wants to claim them for your own tribe. (I’ve decided that since Dominicans run the gamut when it comes to looks, ANYONE could be Dominican. So almost always, any ambiguously ethnic looking person gets nationalized on the spot.)
Let’s be clear that I have no issues with people being/looking/claiming/acting/fronting like they’re ambiguously ethnic. I stopped thinking about it over a decade ago.
What irks me is how cleverly marketers and advertisers are getting hip to this “trend.” McDonald’s, Bank of America, CoverGirl, and a bunch of other national brands have advertising campaigns that feature folks who fit this description.
On an economic level, it makes sense to use models/actors who look ethnically ambiguous: saves on the production cost if they were to make different versions of the same commercial featuring people from several groups. On a visual level, it’s a win-win, since no one can feel excluded from a national campaign if the actors/models look like no one and anyone at the same time.
I’m not trying to find deeper meaning in this at the moment. Just wanted to put it out there for open discussion.
"Juleyka Lantigua is a journalist and editor whose work appears in national newspapers and magazines. For more info visit: www.juleykalantigua.com."