This Whole Foods Obama chicken ad misfires badly

In Manhattan's notoriously liberal Upper West Side, residents' complaints force the organic grocery chain to pull an ad they considered racist.

By Jason Notte Feb 22, 2013 4:52PM
Whole Foods' chicken ad featuring Obama outrages neighbors (© NBC 4 New York, York's Upper West Side may be where hungry tourists stop in at H&H Bagels for breakfast, Barney Greengrass for lox and whitefish and Zabar's to nosh on some cheese or salad. But it's also where Martin Luther King Jr. and Columbia University students voiced opposition to the Vietnam War and where Riverside Church handed out tents to Occupy Wall Street protesters.

It's the home of Lincoln Center, the Museum of Natural History, Barnard and Juilliard.

It's just not the kind of place where Whole Foods (WFM) can put up an illustration of President Barack Obama touting the grocer's chicken special and expect folks to shrug it off as anything but racist. Yet the Whole Foods on 97th Street and Columbus Avenue put up just such a caricature earlier this week before receiving a flood of complaints.

A Whole Foods spokesman told The Huffington Post that the location ditched its caricature of the president selling organic chicken "once it was brought to our attention by a shopper that it may be perceived as offensive." Judging by the neighborhood's reaction, that's an understatement at best.

"There are certain things that have been used to put down black people," neighbor Woody Henderson told NBC 4 New York.

The same Whole Foods spokesman said the store's artists created various pop-culture images to promote sales and events, and that the image wasn't meant to be offensive. Were the depiction of President Obama selling Whole Foods' 365-brand cereal, it might not have offended anyone. However, the specific combination of the image and the product being sold didn't sit well with folks on the Upper West Side's streets.

"Even if he's not the president, you're going to have an African-American promoting the sale of chicken?" Jason Nunez of the Bronx asked NBC. "They can do better than that." 

This hasn't been the first culture clash for Whole Foods and its clientele. Back in January, CEO John Mackey went on National Public Radio and compared the new health care law to fascism. He's also unsettled his notoriously left-leaning consumer base by identifying himself as a libertarian in 2005 and questioning employees' right to health care in 2009.

While slip-ups like the Obama ad may fly in places like Kentucky, where a man who put a mannequin of the president eating a watermelon on his front lawn didn't see how it could be construed as racist, the Upper West Side isn't a great place to play the "Who, us racist?" game.

"I don't think you can find a more pro-Democratic neighborhood," Whole Foods neighbor Jeffrey Schaper told NBC. "They're sort of shooting themselves in the foot."

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