What Microsoft’s “racism” teaches us about ourselves

The ether is alive with enraged twits, tweeting and blogging on about Microsoft’s racist blunder. If you’ve not heard the buzz, it has to do with MS photoshopping an advert as it transported it from the US (where it features a white woman, older black man, and an Asian man) to Poland (where it now features a white woman, a young white man with a black hand, and an Asian man). Outrage, disgust!

Here are the two pictures:

Microsoft advert US and Poland

Microsoft is pulling the advert, and after investigation discovered that all four of the people responsible for the advert have left the company (how convenient).

I am NOT going to join the clamour of voices shouting racism, though. This is just good business (and bad photoshop), and a bad marketing decision, and a great example of the new world of work (yes, it is all of these things).


Firstly, it is good business. Poland is one of the world’s most homogenous countries. There are many countries in the world where you can go days, even weeks, without seeing a black face. This is not racist, it’s reality. Microsoft were correct not to include any Innuit, Auca, Nigerian or Hispanic people in the Polish advert. They were probably stretching things to include an Asian looking person. Golden rule one of business is to understand your market, and to connect with it. It’s not Microsoft’s problem to deal with racial equality in Poland, so making an advert that is more in line with a Polish audience is good business.

Secondly, it was a bad edit job. The guys head was changed, but his hand was not. Not a big deal really, and probably went unnoticed in the Polish advert. But a shocking bit of editing in a world where it’s so easy to do. It would probably have been just as easy to take another photo in the same pose and drop that into the Polish advert. I’m guessing they’re wishing they’d done just that!

Finally, it was a bad marketing decision, precisely because it shows a complete lack of understanding of how connected the world is today. To think that you could do that without someone noticing is insanity today. Did anyone at Microsoft even have the conversation about: “Won’t someone notice?” If they didn’t, they’re just not thinking. If they did have the conversation, and decided that no-one would notice, they’re not in touch with the new world of work and the connectedness of the planet. Either way, it’s not a good sign for the MS marketing department. And the fact that the “four people responsible have left the company” is not a good enough response – this is bigger than four people. Someone signed off on this. Someone placed the adverts. Someone must have noticed. Why did they not think it through? The response they’re received in the past day or so was entirely predictable!

So, no, I don’t think this was racism. I think that’s a red herring. And I think the fact that this is what almost all of the posts about this advert are focussing on tells us more about our own unresolved diversity issues than it tells us about Microsoft. I think this has a lot more to do with the connection economy than with a race issue. I think this was a bad marketing decision, without considering the changed world we live in. And that’s a worrying sign indeed if you’re a Microsoft shareholder.

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