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Anti-racism ads exploit stereotypes

Switzerland's anti-racism campaign has come under fire for being misleading. gra.ch

A new anti-racism campaign that uses cartoon images of minority groups has provoked a furore in Switzerland.

This content was published on October 10, 2003 - 19:57

It exploits racial stereotypes in a bid to force people to confront their prejudices.

The ads - launched in the same week as a provocative campaign by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party - is the brainchild of the Swiss Foundation against Racism and Anti-Semitism, with financially backing from the government.

The posters and film spots depict smiling faces of Jewish, black, Turkish, Thai, Tamil and Balkan people, each with an accompanying clichéd caption.

For example, the question next to a gold-toothed Kosovar Albanian reads “where do the Kosovars get their car radios?”. Answer: “In an electronics shop, just like the Swiss.”

Campaigners say each ad reflects widely held prejudices among some Swiss – in this case, that people from Kosovo are more likely to be criminals.

Aim to shock

Ronald Bernheim, the vice-president of the foundation, told swissinfo that the campaign was designed to shock.

“I’m not comfortable with these images and I hope no one else is,” Bernheim said. “What we are doing is simply showing prejudice as it lives and exists today.

“It’s a reality - as a Jew I know that. It’s out there.”

Bernheim says he’s been criticised by Switzerland’s Jewish community for a poster depicting a Jew. It asks: “How do the Jews get their money? By working, just like the rest of us.”

“We have had negative reactions,” Bernheim admitted. “We knew that would happen, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”

Low budget, high impact

The Zurich advertising company, Wirz, produced the campaign.

“What we were looking for was a low-budget, high-impact campaign,” said Hanspeter Schweizer, one of the designers.

“We used the clichés deliberately, to get as close as possible to those who react to these clichés, who laugh at them,” he told swissinfo.

Wirz believes the cartoon stereotypes are much more likely to make people confront their subconscious prejudices than softer forms of propaganda.

“Say if you put a ‘racism harms’ warning on a bag of sugar, it’s forgotten as soon as you've stirred your coffee.”

Reinforcing prejudices

But the campaign has also come under fire from some groups such as SOS Racisme, which says the posters and films could encourage racism rather than fight it, by reinforcing prejudices.

Some critics also say the poster is badly designed, because the stereotyped questions are in large print, while the more unexpected answers are very small.

“If you’re rushing to catch a tram or something and you saw it, you wouldn’t be able to read it,” said Steven Frost, a translator for the Swiss government. “So you would just see the racist part.”

Frost’s colleagues Madeleine Aviolat and Corinne Dill say they were confused when they first saw the posters.

“I didn’t understand them at all,” said Aviolat. “I thought they were by some rightwing group.”

“I really didn’t know what the gist of it was,” added Dill. “And when I did read through it, I didn’t see how these images could possibly combat racism.”

Offensive

In fact, the stereotypes in the campaign are so extreme that they would probably be unusable in any other kind of advertising promotion, because they would infringe anti-racism legislation.

But the images of the grinning black man surrounded by coconuts and the winking Kosovar have been given the green light because they are used to fight discrimination.

And while acknowledging that these images may be offensive to some, Bernheim insists that this campaign is especially necessary during the run-up to Swiss parliamentary elections.

It coincided with a poster campaign by the Swiss People’s Party captioned “Our dear foreigners”, which shows police mugshots of convicted criminals, none of whom, the party claims, are Swiss.

“The People’s Party and the extreme rightwing are actively working on a hate campaign against foreigners and people with a different skin colour to get more votes,” Bernheim believes.

Bernheim hopes his campaign will persuade the majority of Swiss to look deeply at their own attitudes.

“I want people to talk about it, and I want people to have a higher level of civil courage to work against offences of that kind.”

 

In brief

The new anti-racism campaign is the brainchild of the Swiss Foundation against Racism and Anti-Semitism. It has funding from the Swiss department of the Interior.

The posters and film spots use cartoons of minority groups together with clichéd captions about them.

Some anti-racist groups claim the campaign runs the risk of reinforcing prejudices rather than fighting them.

Switzerland was one of the last countries to ratify the United Nations Convention against Racial Discrimination, following a referendum in 1994.

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