Fight the Power. Or not
Ad men are as fickle as the sports fan. If there’s a bandwagon, they’ll jump aboard—regardless of who they’re truly cheering for
Advertising, like a browbeaten dog, trots along at its clients heels in fear of alienating its master. And, like the dog, advertising second-guesses every move. The last time the dog acted spontaneously (a friendly but too vigorous nuzzle in the groin) it was cuffed alongside the ear. The advertising executive—a mutt of a different sort—shares the dog’s apprehension. Should anyone be offended by an ad (the kindly grandmother in Grand Forks, the florist in Sacramento, or the exhausted mother of three in St. Louis) the advertising agency risks losing a client. And losing a client means the man upstairs cuffs the ad-exec in the ear and shuffles him off to the office in purgatory (Sacramento).
Don’t think for a moment Yamaha’s Supershaft ad—despite the model, despite the innuendo—is startling. The ad agency took no risk. What is surprising is that a mere decade after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a civil rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery, society’s view of black empowerment had shifted to the degree where a conservative Japanese manufacturer would employ an unconventionally beautiful black woman to hawk their wares. (Unconventional only when viewed through the lens of white male desire, which, by-and-large, covets black women of light skin with facial features reminiscent of white women.)
There was, mind you, an intermediate step between the divisiveness of the Dr. King-led march in 1965, and when this ad appeared in 1976. That step was the Blaxploitation film. A portmanteau of black and exploitation, the most popular film of the genre was the Gordon Parks directed Shaft from 1970. (The tag line in the film’s trailer was “Hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt.”)
Blaxploitation films intermingled issues of black subjugation—and, equally, black power—with good old-fashioned American cinematic violence. While it’s easy to understand the appeal to black audiences, Blaxploitation films were unexpected hits with white audiences, too. It’s this last point that’s key—had the films not crossed-over to whites, you’d never, ever, have seen an ad like this.
As the ad notes, the Yamaha XS750 is shaft drive. And because it doesn’t take an imagination to summon a male anatomy synonym for shaft, Yamaha’s agency was able to incorporate the basest of locker-room humour. The effect is dispiriting; it belittles the model’s defiant stance and turns black empowerment, at the root of films like Shaft, into nothing more than a device to set up what is, ultimately, a dick joke.
That should have been the end of it. But Suzuki, always late to the party, follows up a few years later with a derivative ad. The GS850 was a direct competitor to Yamaha’s XS750, so Suzuki’s agency would have been familiar with Yamaha’s pitch. The ad wastes no time plunging straight below the belt. Fine Shaftsmanship? You bet, fellas! Just send me home early to the missus with a bottle of brandy in my briefcase and a Harvey Wallbanger in my belly.
Neither the Yamaha XS750 nor the Suzuki GS850 were memorable machines. The advancements made to motorcycles in the intervening years have been astounding. But the years have not been as kind to people of colour, where the successes made in the years after the death of Dr. King seem, today, as fragile as gossamer.
Collusion or confusion? Did the Japanese really know what they were getting into with these ads?