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That tone-deaf Ancestry ad was playing on Canadian emotions about Americans

The now-pulled Canadian ad was rightly criticized for its sugar-coated depiction of a relationship between a white man and a black woman during slavery.

That tone-deaf Ancestry ad was playing on Canadian emotions about Americans

“Abigail, we can escape to the North,” a white man says to a black woman, both wearing 19th-century period costume. “There is a place we can be together, across the border. Will you leave with me?”

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It’s a marriage proposal. And it’s an ad for the genealogy company Ancestry that, over the last couple of days, has been (rightly) raked over the coals for its sugar-coated depiction of relationship between a white man and black woman during slavery.

By last night, Ancestry had announced it was pulling the ad.

The ad was created by ad agency Anomaly’s Toronto office, and the spot originally launched on Canadian broadcast TV–hence the tagline touting Ancestry.ca. Aimed at a Canadian audience (of which I am a member), the spot seems designed to tap into Canadians’ sense of moral superiority. See, Canada is known as the friendly neighbor to the north, and while that’s largely true, along with our well-known inferiority complex when it comes to our southern neighbor, we also possess an underlying sense of pride that we’re not as loud, arrogant, self-obsessed, etc. as Americans. We emote all this while just waiting for any and all signs that show you really, really like us.

What this ad seems to be saying to Canadians is something in the ballpark of, “See, weeee didn’t have slavery!” despite the country’s own complicated, and decidedly less-than-rosy history of race relations and policy. It has the same white-savior, Green Book-like vibe as the Underground Railroad episode of the well-known, long-running Heritage Minutes PSA campaign that flooded Canadian TVs in the early 1990s.

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Tellingly, the Ancestry spot began to air on Canadian TV at the start of April (posted originally to YouTube on April 2), but it wasn’t until this week that the American response pointed out the ad’s obvious faults and historical failings. It wasn’t the intended emotional response the brand was hoping for, but it’s the right one.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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