“Flipping the Script” on Panhandling

This summer, Vitamin Water and CollegeHumor released the above video, “Subway Bragger,” as a part of the water brand’s new #makeboringbrilliant advertising campaign. The idea, of course, is that water on its own is boring, but Vitamin Water has made it “brilliant” through the addition of tasty flavors and vitamin supplements. “Subway Bragger” is part of a series of online videos in which panhandling joins waiting rooms, airplane delays, a natural history museum tour, and more, as the “boring” to which Vitamin Water adds flair.

Online response to this panhandling “prank” on a Philadelphia subway train has been mostly positive. GOOD magazine and Philly.com call the video “hilarious,” Policy Mic touts it as an “awesome performance,” and inspirational website Upworthy says that while being “pretty hilarious,” the video “teaches a little lesson on not being so quick to judge people.” The Huffington Post featured the clip in its comedy section, and explained that the people on this train were “delighted” when this panhandler “flipped the script.” Interestingly, the only negative responses I have found to the piece have come from the advertising community. AdWeek’s David Kiefaber wrote, “maybe a sugar-water brand’s energy would be better spent actually helping the homeless [rather] than making fun of them,” and the AdRANTS blog questions the marketing value of a video that “makes light” of homelessness.

To call panhandling — and by implication, poverty — “boring” isn’t just to minimize the struggle of millions of people who experience homelessness in the United States each year. It also speaks to the ease with which so many Americans allow visible poverty to become an (effectively) invisible part of the urban background, as natural as the honking of horns, the smell of the subway station, or the changing of traffic lights. To pass someone in need has become mundane, and that is what allows Vitamin Water to place it in the same campaign as the boring waiting room ad.

What I find even more interesting than the campaign slogan is the response to the video. The scenario is “hilarious” because the black man speaking on the subway train isn’t poor. If this is a “flipped script,” the poverty of a black man is normal, but his ability to speak eloquently and succeed economically is unusual. And, in the words of Vitamin Water, it’s not just funny, it’s “brilliant.”

I would argue, however, that the script hasn’t actually been flipped. Instead, I think the presumed panhandler simply moves from one stereotype of black masculinity to another. Rather than serving as the poor black man, as the audience anticipates, he serves as the black comedian. A number of scholars (including for example, Patricia Hill Collins and Donald Bogle) have explained that black men who wish to avoid being freighted with images of poverty and criminality in the media have few options, but an ability to entertain is one of them. Humorous black characters like those played by Chris Rock, Tyler Perry, or Bill Cosby are “acceptable” black men who appear “safe” (i.e., not criminal, not poor) so long as they don’t challenge existing race norms. As the man in this video moves from presumed panhandler to subway car entertainer, he does not escape the social categories that guide the ways that Americans (white Americans, in particular) interpret black male identities. The script isn’t flipped; it just shifts.

Vitamin Water is not just selling water with the “Subway Bragger.” It is also marketing narratives of race and class. Rather than challenging viewers’ perceptions, the video’s humor reinforces their beliefs about both poverty and black men in America.

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