An elderly African woman's wrinkled breasts were pictured in an advertisement mocking the Screen Actors Guild _ whose acronym is SAG _ prompting protests of racism and sexism by actors striking against television advertisers and eliciting an abject apology from the agency that placed it.
The ad with the large photo was placed in Shoot magazine, a weekly trade publication widely read in the advertising industry. It stated, "In South Africa, this is what SAG means," and announced that a leading commercial director, Marcus Nispel, would be moving to South Africa to work because of the three-week-old strike.
Almost immediately the ad was condemned for its insensitivity to women and blacks. "We believe it's one of the most racist, sexist and misogynistic ads we've ever seen," said Anne-Marie Johnson, an actor on the television series JAG and head of the equal employment opportunity committee for SAG and its partner in the strike, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. "To visually victimize women and specifically people of color goes beyond the pale. We are just in shock."
Nispel is a sought-after director in the advertising industry and a leading talent at RSA USA, the agency owned by feature film directors Tony and Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Alien). Nispel has directed commercials for such high-profile clients as the Gap, Coca-Cola, AT&T, Sprint and the U.S. Postal Service.
Nispel initially told Daily Variety this week that he got "loads of messages from people who got a good chuckle about the ad." But Thursday the Scott brothers issued a statement saying "RSA USA made a huge mistake. Our intent was not to offend people of color, women or anyone else by the use of our advertisement in the recent edition of Shoot. For that we are truly and deeply sorry."
The Scotts went on to say they knew nothing about the advertisement in advance and were "sickened and appalled" by it. Nispel could not be reached for comment at the agency.
Still, the presidents of the two actors' unions, William Daniels and Shelby Scott, issued an open letter calling on clients of RSA to dissociate themselves from the agency "and from the racist, sexist and union-busting principles of an ad so repugnant on so many different levels that it simply boggles the mind."
The 135,000 members of SAG and AFTRA went on strike May 1 after contract negotiations with the two main advertising associations _ the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies _ broke down over pay issues.
After three weeks of the strike, there has been no sign of renewed willingness to negotiate on either side, and the furor over the RSA ad seems likely to further heighten tensions.