The Italian airline Alitalia was fiercely criticized this week after releasing an advertisement on social media that featured an actor wearing blackface playing former President Barack Obama.
The ad was one of four Italian-language videos made to promote the airline’s recently announced nonstop flight from Rome to Washington. Its other videos showed actors portraying President Trump, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, with the hashtag #WhereIsWashington.
The video featuring the character of Mr. Obama quickly elicited angry comments on YouTube and Facebook, mostly written in Italian, after it was posted. Comments on Facebook called the video “outrageous” and noted that blackface was “universally considered a racist practice.” In response, a representative for the airline initially defended the video, saying that the actor portraying Mr. Obama was not Caucasian and that “makeup was applied to highlight features.”
Later on Wednesday, the company apologized and said that it would remove the ad from all of its social media channels.
“Alitalia deeply apologizes for the offense caused by the promotional video on our new Washington route,” it said in a statement. “For our company, respect for everyone is mandatory, it was never our intention to hurt anyone and we will learn from what has happened.”
Alitalia is the latest brand in recent months to release products or ads that have been criticized as racist. Earlier this year, Gucci, another Italian brand, stopped selling a black-knit women’s sweater that could be pulled up over the lower half of a wearer’s face. Its opening for a mouth was surrounded by bright red lips, and the garment was decried on social media for evoking blackface imagery. Prada, also based in Italy, apologized for charms on bags that resembled black monkeys with outsize red lips. Last year, H&M, based in Sweden, apologized for an image in its online store of a black child model wearing a hooded sweatshirt that said “coolest monkey in the jungle.”
The issues are not just limited to international brands.
This week, Nike canceled the release of a sneaker that featured a 13-star American flag, which is associated with the Revolutionary War and considered by some to be a symbol of oppression and racism. Colin Kaepernick, the former National Football League quarterback and social justice activist, reportedly criticized the design to Nike privately, expressing concern to the company that the Betsy Ross flag had been co-opted by groups that espouse racist ideologies.
Brands have become quick to respond to these crises, which inevitably raise questions around who is making the editorial decisions behind these ads and products. The ad industry has long struggled with a lack of gender and ethnic diversity.
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