CBC News
In advertising, the Scots are hot
By Dan Brown, CBC News Online | July 15, 2004

It's hard not to notice how many television commercials have Scottish characters in them these days. From the guy who gets perturbed at bar patrons who don't treat Keith's beer with respect to the impossibly small spokesman for Kellogg's to the tight-fisted uncle in the Money Mart spots, the Scots are currently the most overrepresented minority in TV advertising.

Don't mistreat this beer or a surly Scot will yell at you (Photo Robin Rowland)
It's hard not to notice these characters for one simple reason: they yell a lot. In fact, they behave exactly as non-Scottish people expect the Scottish to behave: they're quick to anger and slow to spend money. They're stereotypes, in other words.

While there's no question that advertisers have always employed ethnic caricatures, why the Scots should be singled out now is a bit of a mystery. It's puzzling, even for a country that has deep Scottish roots, that Canada should have so many Scottish characters populating its airwaves. So what's driving the trend?

"I think it's a fair question: why are they picking on the Scots? I think the answer is: because they can, and people don't get too offended," says Andrew Clark, an expert on Canadian comedy and an instructor at Toronto's Humber College.

Clark – who was a university friend of Rob Smith, the actor who portrays the constantly outraged kilt wearer for Keith's – thinks the spots for the Nova Scotia beer are "not bad," but in general he finds the overuse of Scottish characters "pretty annoying."

Randy Stein is a partner, creative, at Grip Limited, a Toronto advertising agency. In his mind, he also puts the Keith's campaign in a different category, separate from the Kellogg's and Money Mart ads.

"I think it's outstanding advertising," Stein says of the Keith's commercials. "And then I think the other two are the other side of the coin, which is just bad."

The larger-than-life Scottish figure used by Keith's passes a crucial test for Stein: it is directly connected to the product – Alexander Keith, the company's founder, was an immigrant from Scotland, after all. The same can't be said about the ads for Kellogg's Nutri-Grain Mini Bars, which feature a shouting Scot who is only a few inches tall.

"The idea of a miniature person isn't necessarily a bad one. Why that miniature person speaks with a bad fake Scottish accent, I don't know. I don't see the relevance there at all," Stein says. He also adds that, to his knowledge, Money Mart has no ties to Scotland.

And what about Scottish people? What do they think? Are they flattered or flabbergasted?

Born and raised in Edinburgh, Steve Raeburn is a software developer in Vancouver. He, for one, is not impressed.

"It's a very one-dimensional stereotype of somebody who's never been to Scotland's idea of a Scot," he says. Raeburn suspects that the performers who portray Scottish people in Canadian commercials are "10th-generation Canadians."

"I don't know if any of those guys have ever been near Scotland. If they have, they've been here too long and their accents have gone very strange."

Although Raeburn dislikes the Keith's ads so much that he goes out of his way to avoid buying the company's beer, he doesn't feel they're offensive: "Offensive's probably too strong a word. They're certainly irritating. I don't think many Scots people would be deeply offended by them; I don't think they're that sensitive to that kind of issue."

Why are Canadian advertisers so obsessed with people from Scotland?
That said, Raeburn does wonder why the Scots are treated differently: "I don't think you would see that kind of advertising with another ethnic group, a minority that has a history of stereotyping, offensive jokes, et cetera. I don't think it would be on TV."

He believes that the reason advertisers pick on the Scots is they're not a visible minority, so "it's more than fair game to poke fun at them."

"It seems to be the ethnicity that it's OK to make fun of," echoes Clark, who points out that making fun of things Scottish is a tradition in North American comedy that extends decades into the past: "I think people look at Scots and they don't consider the Scots an oppressed minority, although the Scots do – they feel alienated inside Great Britain. But to Canadians I think it's just a funny guy with a funny accent."

Canadian firms also have a long history of using the Scots in advertising. Canadian Tire, to name the most obvious example, chose the frugal Scot Sandy McTire as the mascot to put on Canadian Tire money.

And there are plenty of other companies that get away with using caricatures. The current campaign for McCain's pizza features a family of faux Italians, and Hall's relies on a clich�d Jamaican character to push its throat lozenges. But despite the pervasiveness of hackneyed ethnic characters, Clark believes that advertisers would not be able to paint other ethnicities with the same brush they use to colour the Scots. There would be an outcry if a Jewish character were portrayed in a commercial as cheap, for example.

The new Kellogg's spokesman is a tiny, angry Scot not much bigger than this Nutri-Grain Mini Cereal bar (Photo Robin Rowland)
According to Stein, advertisers will sometimes make a calculated decision to offend one group of people in order to reach another. If reaching the youth demographic means that an advertiser has to risk offending older consumers, for example, Stein says that some advertisers will determine that to be an acceptable gamble.

Still, he doesn't believe that Keith's or anyone else has anything to gain by targeting the Scots, so he doesn't see these commercials as being offensive or annoying on purpose. (No one from Keith's, Kellogg's or Money Mart could be reached in time for comment on this article.)

"I think the cynical viewpoint, and I share it, is it's trying to get a cheap laugh," Stein says.

Companies may think they can get laughs from mocking the Scottish because one Canadian performer in particular has made doing so an essential part of his career: that's right – this trend may all be the fault of Mike Myers, who has satirized the Scots on both the big and small screens.

Mike Myers has made mocking the Scottish an essential part of his career
"It's always been there, but it was Mike Myers who really made it mainstream," says Clark, who thinks advertisers like Kellogg's are just trying to cash in on memorable Myers characters like Fat Bastard, the oversized assassin from the two Austin Powers sequels, and Stuart MacKenzie, the stern father from So I Married An Axe Murderer.

"They think 'Oh, people like that. Let's do it,'" Clark notes. "I think it doesn't really go too far beyond that."

In Stein's view, however, trying to ride on the coattails of the Scarborough, Ont.-born funnyman is a losing strategy: "If you're going to copy his shtick, and then you think you're going to be funnier, then good luck to you."

Scottish people are quite prepared to laugh at themselves, Raeburn says, and he considers characters like Fat Bastard hilariously funny. All the TV ads with Scots in them, however, do not have the same comic effect. "I think the difference is that Mike Myers does what really good comedians do: he finds that grain of truth and exaggerates the hell out of it, whereas the advertisers don't bother looking for a grain of truth, they just stop at the stereotype," Raeburn says.

Besides, as Raeburn points out, there is a logical inconsistency in the stereotypical view of the Scots as being mean – and mean with cash.

"We're apparently stingy and angry. Why we're angry I don't know, because we keep all our money."

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