Posted on July 28, 2004

Company Apologizes For ‘Where You At?’ Billboards

Geralda Miller, Reno Gazette-Journal, July 23, 2004

A division of Nextel Communications has apologized if anyone has been insulted by its Boost Mobile billboards depicting a bug-eyed black male asking “Where you at?”

The advertisements, scattered around Reno promoting a new cell phone designed for teens, have some complaining it exploits black youths, promotes non-standard English and resurrects an ethnic form of slavery.

“Boost’s billboard advertising is meant to be humorous and appeal to young adults,” said Andrew Colley, Boost Mobile communications manager, in a written statement. “We truly apologize if our billboard offended anyone.”

The billboards have been up in Reno for nearly three months and are scheduled to be removed by the end of the week, Colley said.

Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a Chicago-based market research firm specializing in African-American marketing, media and research, said Boost Mobile erred by “trying to be hip.”

“A lot of silly and insensitive things are done by some in advertising in the name of taking creative license,” Smikle said. “Marketers need to be very cognizant of what their primary obligation is, namely to communicate. And comedy and being edgy often distort the message and distract people from what you truly intended to say.”

Colley said the advertisement uses slang popular with its target audience, and the images are of professional athletes who are members of Boost Mobile’s action sports team.

“Boost is a brand that attracts street-savvy, irreverent youth who live large, yet aspire to the next level in their lives,” a news release on the product said.

But it is not the black youths who remember the ethnic stereotypes from the Jim Crow era.

“That sign is very offensive to me,” said community activist Onie Cooper, 79. “It brings back memories of traumatic experiences I had growing up as a young boy in Louisiana.”

Cooper said he wants to see the billboards taken away.

Constance Cannon Frazier, senior vice president of diversity and strategic programs at the American Advertising Federation in Washington, D.C., said advertisers must not alienate ethnic groups as they target a subculture of the group in “their particular language.”

“It is crucial to have an understanding of the cultural insights of the entire ethnic group as opposed to only a specific subculture within the group,” she said.

Language experts say a fine line exists between the acceptable usage of ethnic vernacular, which has a dominant role in popular culture and parodying blacks.

John Rickford, linguistics professor at Stanford University and author of several books on black dialects, said “Where you at” is acceptable grammatical structure.

“You will find it throughout the Caribbean and in other countries” Rickford said. “So the language itself is not objectionable at all to me. I’m happy to see it recognized. The language in and of itself is not a problem.”

In parts of Louisiana, “Where you at” is generally used to ask how someone feels.

However, he said the bug-eyed image is stereotypical.

“That’s objectionable,” he said.

Walt Wolfram, linguistics professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, agreed.

He said using a black dialect in advertising is a common way to personalize a product.

“They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t think it sold,” Wolfram said.

However, when the popular dialect is paired with a Black Sambo type image, Wolfram said the ad becomes a “racist parody.”

“The things we do that we don’t think are racist sometimes are simply a manifestation of racism that we don’t think about,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t realize what we’re doing.”

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