Steve and his new roommate, Zagar, share an apartment. But the half-naked Zagar, a Native tribesman, is tough to live with. He eats Steve’s canary, tries to light a fire under the bathtub and shoots arrows at the cat, hitting Steve instead. This wacky “odd couple” can’t seem to connect ... except over a refreshing beer.
So begins the latest ad campaign for Bud Light. Titled “Zagar and Steve,” it consists of several television commercials and flash videos. The commercials have aired since July on programs such as “Saturday Night Live.”
In an ad about playing basketball, Zagar attacks his opponents with a blowgun, club, and bow and arrow. A spot set in a bowling alley has Zagar smashing his hand through glass and chucking a ball into a rival’s head.
Another bit takes place in a restaurant, where he shoots one patron in the back and hurls a knife into a waiter’s chest.
The campaign has its own Web site, www.zagarandsteve.com. Here you can find Zagar’s phony history, Steve���s faux blog entries about his roommate and fawning comments from fans (probably invented). Presumably it’s an example of “viral” marketing, with visitors downloading videos and spreading the word themselves.
Like the ads, Zagar’s made-up background spoofs indigenous peoples. According to this narrative, Zagar once strapped a starving wolverine onto someone’s back. He made a stereo out of coconuts and barbed wire. His folk spout such gobbledygook as “jhiojuior khjjik oiuj,” which looks like something a chimp typed.
The Web site tries to obscure Zagar’s origin by saying he comes from “parts unknown.” This may be an attempt to locate him in a remote, fantasy-like setting and thus immunize him from criticism. But with his bowl-cut black hair and coppery skin, Zagar is clearly an Amazon Indian.
Why exactly is this ad campaign so problematic? After all, some would argue, aren’t some Amazonians still “primitive”? Well, yes and no – mostly no. Anyway, just who gets to define “primitive”?
First, the choice of settings is unfair because it undermines the Indian. If Steve were dropped into a jungle, he’d seem just as foolish as Zagar does in the city. But the campaign doesn’t try this switch because it would subvert the message: that urban life is best and Bud Light is its centerpiece.
Second, Zagar supposedly left his village to see the world. To get from there to here, he would’ve had to learn the basics of human customs and communications. He would’ve mastered such rudimentary rules as not firing weapons or destroying property indiscriminately.
Today few if any tribes exist beyond the pale of civilization. Almost everyone on the planet knows about cars, television and Coca-Cola. Yet Zagar might as well have come from Neverland. He’s apparently ignorant of everything that’s happened since Columbus.
Third, the ad shows no awareness that Indians have their own complex cultural heritages. For instance, does Anheuser-Busch think Indians don’t understand pets? They domesticated such animals as the llama, dog and turkey. Does Anheuser-Busch think they don’t play sports? They invented lacrosse and the precursor to basketball, using raised hoops and rubber balls. Does Anheuser-Busch think Indians can’t act nonviolently? Many are pacifists and all have moral relationships, like every other race of humans.
This campaign is a throwback to the days when Americans portrayed Indians as pure savages: unable to speak English, uninterested in peace and harmony, intent only on killing and ravaging. It’s no better than a 19th century minstrel show that depicted Negro behavior as stupid and stereotypical. George Washington once labeled Indians “beasts of prey” and this endeavor does the same.
It’s not hard to imagine how an advertising agency might defend its use of Zagar. It’s what people always say when accused of stereotyping. “We didn’t mean to offend anyone. It’s just harmless fun.”
How many times have media experts refuted such self-serving statements? “The usual task of these representations is to cast us as part of a distant past, rather than a dynamic present,” said Loretta Todd, a Metis/Cree filmmaker, to an interviewer. “Media image is especially crucial because it is that image that looms large as non-Indians decide the fate of Indian people,” said Rennard Strickland, a retired Osage/Cherokee professor of law, in the Native Times.
Finally, consider the closing shots of Steve and Zagar communing over beer. Should the advertisers really show an Indian endorsing alcohol despite the pain it’s caused Native people? Would they also show diabetics eating chocolate or children playing with dynamite? For Indian people, alcohol is just as explosive in its destructiveness.
Anheuser-Busch should halt this offensive ad campaign before the next arrow hurts someone. If it doesn’t, Natives and others concerned with minority stereotyping should make their voices heard.
<i>Rob Schmidt is a freelance writer who specializes in Native and multicultural subjects. He maintains a Stereotype of the Month contest at www.bluecorncomics.com.