Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Curtiss Reed Jr., the executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness & Diversity.
Advertising history is replete with examples of cross-cultural branding blunders.
In 1994 “The future’s bright the future’s Orange” was the tagline of the French telecom company Orange. But when they took their slogan across the Irish Sea, it brought to mind the Orange Order. For Northern Ireland’s Catholics, the slogan suggested that the future was Protestant, loyalist and anti-Catholic.
Brian Dubie’s “Pure Vermont” brand is another example of cross-cultural blundering. Presumably, the slogan refers to Vermont’s agricultural products and environmental legacy. But for many Vermonters, these words denote racial, religious and cultural oppression. They imply that Vermont is a place reserved for white Christians.
Yet unlike the French company — which quickly ditched its offensive ad in Northern Ireland — the Dubie campaign continues to use the Pure Vermont brand in spite of efforts to bring this to the campaign’s attention.
Vermont’s population is becoming increasingly diverse. Over the past decade, 31 percent of the state’s new residents were racial and ethnic minorities. The “pure” brand perpetuates the “native” verses “flatlander” divisive wedge for the 60 percent of us who were born someplace other than this great state. Tens of thousands of Vermonters today come from non-Christian religious traditions whose recent histories recount public humiliation, persecution and genocide under the rule of oppressive regimes.
Dubie’s brand resurrects the horror of the Eugenics Survey and the 1931 passage of An Act for Human Betterment by Voluntary Sterilization. This measure codified the practice of racism, harassment, and the sterilization of the Abenaki people. “Pure Vermont” raises the specter of Hilter’s Aryan Nation and the Khmer Rouge where the purifying agent was genocide.
And the slogan is a bitter reminder of the bigotry and racial segregation experienced by blacks under slavery and Jim Crow. The precipitous drop of Vermont’s black population in the early 20th century was no doubt partially due to the Klan’s efforts to keep Vermont pure.
More than a remnant of our recent past, racism and bias are stubborn problems in our schools. The brand turns a deaf ear to the sensitivities of students of color and LGBT students. Too often the target of brutal bullying, suicide attempts among these student populations are three to eight times higher than those of white or heterosexual students.
The “Pure Vermont” brand is pure invalidation of the fastest growing segment of our population. And the brand’s handlers have been dishing out a healthy dose of avoidant behavior or, optimistically, benign neglect. The inherent challenges and opportunities of a more multicultural Vermont should not be ignored or buried in the polite discourse of denial. Failure to authentically affirm our presence today will prove, in years to come, to be the Achilles heel of Vermont’s economic recovery, prosperity, and a sense of community free of prejudice and discrimination of all kinds.
“Pure Vermont” does nothing to bring Vermonters together. Vermont deserves inclusive, decisive, self-aware leadership with the 21st century skills to negotiate the oncoming changes within and beyond our borders.
CORRECTION: Curtiss Reed sent an e-mail alert out on Oct. 22, 2010, regarding an error in his commentary. “Minorities accounted for 31% of Vermont’s population growth from 2000 thru 2009 not 94.5% as reported in my commentary. This latter figure relates to the growth rate of minorities as a group from 1995 thru 2009. My apologies to your readers for this reporting error.”