From Kenya to Canada: Some Critiques of the Tim Hortons Commercial “The Away Game”

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On Monday, Tim Hortons released a three-minute commercial entitled “The Away Game.” Featuring the Nairobi Ice Lions, “Kenya’s only hockey team,” the ad shows men from the team taking a sponsored visit to Toronto, during which time they are given jerseys and gear, play a match against a local team, and receiving a surprise visit from star NHL players (and Tim Hortons spokesmen) Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon. The ad has quickly gone viral and has been viewed over 650,000 times as of writing:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqYfhY5gVl8&app=desktop

This is the latest of many Tim Hortons promotions that use hockey to tug at the heart strings, represent the brand as reflecting the diversity (and in this case generosity) of a multicultural Canada, and intimately tie its brand to mythologized ideals about hockey and community in Canada. And damn, if it isn’t effective. Try not to smile at the Ice Lions players’ reaction to meeting their hockey idol, Sidney Crosby, when he enters the dressing room in their jersey.

However, beneath the sentimental and seemingly benign advert are some problematic issues that deserve to be unpacked. As such, I delve into three initial critiques that stuck out to me upon viewing the commercial: the absence of women players on Ice Lions, the problematic representation of the athletes’ home city of Nairobi, and the uncritical promotion of the myth that hockey is an inherently unifying force.

Where are the Women Team Members?

In an excellent ESPN photo essay published just last week, Chris Donovan highlighted the five women playing on the Nairobi Ice Lions:

Tasha is not alone in Kenya when it comes to a love of hockey. She is one of five women who play on the Nairobi Ice Lions, East Africa’s sole ice hockey team.

As the country enters the final stages of creating the Kenyan Ice Hockey Federation, plans are in the works to build a men’s national hockey team. But where does that leave the women?

Right now there are not enough players to support a women’s team, but that doesn’t stop Otieno and her teammates — Carroll Joseph, Alexcy Wambui, Faith Wambui and Faith Sihoho — from making big plans. “I think one day you will see Kenyan women playing hockey at the Olympics,” Carroll says. “When we were little, there were no women playing ice hockey in Kenya that we could look up to. We want to be those women for the next generation of Kenyan girls.”

Despite the five women on the Ice Lions (presumably 20-25% of the team members), no women appear to be prominent visible in the Tim Hortons commercial, which instead plays According to information supplied by the company, “Tim Hortons flew 12 members of the senior Ice Lions team to Canada.” It is not clear if any of the five women players were invited and, if so, why they declined. However, the way in which the Ice Lions are presented in the commercial makes it appear to be a men’s team, making invisible the stories of the women players who play alongside the visitors to Toronto.

I am not the only person who noticed this absence:

Representing an “Exotic” and Impoverished Africa 

The framing of the commercial plays into well-worn and ignorant Western stereotypes of a generic “Africa” – stereotypes which, of course, ignore the tremendous cultural, geographic, and historical diversity of the continent. These stereotypes both exoticise the continent and represent it as a universally impoverished region. The ad – while thankfully avoiding locating the commercial in a generic “African” location, like some other sport commercials – uses four establishing shots for Nairobi, the content of which might be summarized as “wildlife and slums”:

These images are curious representations of Nairobi, a booming metropolis of over 6 million people that is a major cultural and economic hub in East Africa. With regard to the friendly giraffe that appears in the commercial, researchers have explained how such media portrayals of the African continent “become fashionable icons for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, often reinforcing a perfect nostalgic vision of the black continent as an unexplored and time-frozen wild Eden.” Meanwhile, the shots of rundown apartments contribute to the long standing production of Global South “poverty porn” for the consumption of audiences in the Global North.

Granted, Tim Hortons is not exploiting these images to the degree that some charities, or even travel companies, do. Yet it is making the Ice Lions into an exotic object of curiosity for consumers in the Global North. And yes, of course there are indeed low-income areas and slums in Nairobi (and giraffes, for that matter!):

However, while not entirely inaccurate, the images in the commercial – which, again, are used to establish a setting with which few of the Canadian audience will be familiar – use lazy stereotypes to selectively represent aspects of the city while ignoring the complex and dynamic nature of the Kenyan capital. Further, they are juxtaposed with the gleaming skyscrapers and modern technology of Toronto, when the Ice Lions arrive downtown:

Why is Nairobi represented by wildlife and slums, and not its urban landscapes that are not unlike those of downtown Toronto?

 

While seemingly innocuous, these portrayals do matter. In an editorial about a controversial fundraising video for the NGO Comic Relief, Jennifer Lentfer summarized some of the major critiques of this campaign:

The images are decontextualized and show a lack of nuance [and] an artificial distinction is created between “us” and them. … Reinforcing narrative frames that center whiteness and wealth is dangerous, irresponsible, and unacceptable.

The Tim Hortons commercial is less obviously problematic than Comic Relief’s or other similar charity campaigns. Nonetheless, the video does use decontextualized and stereotypical images of “Africa” to exoticize the team without showing with any of socioeconomic, cultural, and geographic diversity found in Nairobi or grappling with the daily realities and challenges faced by many of its residents. The effect of juxtaposing the selective shots of Nairobi with those of Toronto is to cast the former as backward, impoverished, and exotic and the latter as advanced and modern—thus creating the clear “us” and “them” dichotomy critiqued by Lentfer.

Certainly, Tim Hortons appears to have given members of the Ice Lions a memorable and enjoyable experience. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that. However, its framing of the athletes’ home city does little to dispel stereotypes of Africa that remain stubbornly persistent in popular media of the Global North.

Mythologizing the Unifying Power of Hockey

Numerous sociologists of sport have highlighted the contradiction between plaudits about the “power of sport” to be a unifying force or character-building activity and the numerous examples in which sport fosters or exacerbates social division or problematic behaviour (violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, ultra-competitiveness, etc.). Ultimately, sport is neither entirely virtuous nor entirely immoral or unethical—it can contain elements of either, depending on how it is socially constructed. However, the mass media (which, of course, profits greatly from its relationship with pro sports) and many individuals with prominent stakes in sport tend to exaggerate the potential positives of sport without considering any of its potential problems.

Consider Sidney Crosby’s statements from the video:

That’s the best part about the game, is just how it reaches so many people. And [in] a place like Kenya, where you wouldn’t think that there [is] even ice. … To meet people from different places and to share the game that we love to play. I think I had just as much fun as those guys today.

Let’s move past the “place like Kenya” quotation, given what I already discussed in the previous section, and focus on Crosby’s statements about hockey. Not surprisingly for someone who is passionate about hockey and has benefited handsomely from his talent in the sport (in terms of money and prestige), Crosby promotes an overly-positive view of the sport as something that brings together people from different backgrounds around a common love. Just like there are giraffes and slums in Nairobi, it is true that hockey certainly can have this unifying effect. However, just as wildlife and urban poverty fail to give a complete picture of Nairobi, Crosby’s one-sided statement ignores the ample evidence that hockey can create division, hostility, violence, or exclusion.

While the Ice Lions scrimmage certainly does appear to have brought together the players, their celebrity teammates, and their Toronto opponents, it remains to be seen how long-lasting those impacts will be. Will the Ice Lions players’ lives be improved in a significant way by this trip? Or is this a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will provide a happy memory and little else?

Either way, Tim Hortons’ investment in producing this commercial will likely return far greater profit and PR benefits to the company than it spent to host the 12 men and arrange this match. By advancing the hockey-as-unity narrative, Tim Hortons is contributing to the powerful mythologization of hockey as a central representation of Canadian identity—a mythologization that Tim Hortons actively promotes and profits from through its marketing and corporate social responsibility initiatives.

Concluding Thoughts

There is little doubt that this commercial has already been highly successful for Tim Hortons, given its visibility and popularity in and beyond hockey circles. However, as this post has suggested, there is more to the video than meets the eye. And in such cases, it is always worth asking the question of who is benefiting from this commercial product.

Ideally, this campaign will actually benefit some Kenyans in a meaningful way. The conclusion of the video offers hope that this experience marks the start, not the end, of Tim Hortons’ commitment to the development of hockey in Kenya. The closing voice-over by a member of the Kenyan team, and the accompanying on-screen text, states that Tim Hortons is investing in Kenyan youth hockey (including, it appears, for girls):

Youth league

However, the degree of this investment remains to be seen, to say nothing of whether there is a genuine demand for hockey in Kenya or whether these funds could be invested in a more meaningful way for the country’s citizens.

Ultimately, however, this is a calculated move to benefit Tim Hortons. The company produced this ad for a Canadian audience in an effort to increase its corporate image and profit margins. From this perspective, the commercial is positioning the company as a benevolent entity that is generously providing hockey opportunities to people who would otherwise be unable to access it. The fact that this act of charity is occurring in an exoticized, faraway land – a place that, in Crosby’s words, most Canadians “wouldn’t think that there [is] even ice” – further casts Tim Hortons as a global ambassador of Canadian culture (an approach that Molson Canadian, which also heavily associates itself in its marketing with hockey and Canadian identity, has also attempted).

From this perspective, the use of wildlife and slums in the portrayal of Nairobi makes sense – the participants had to be portrayed as coming from a place that was contrary to urban Canada (portrayed as a “them”), in order to be recipients of Canadian cultural ambassadorship (from “us”), and they further had to be cast as believable objects of charity, despite playing an expensive and inaccessible sport. As such, the framing of Nairobi can be understood not just a careless use of stereotypes, but an intentional oversimplification designed to create an us/them dichotomy.

It is further worth noting that the commercial gives the impression that African, and specifically Kenyan, hockey is only advancing due to Tim Hortons’ charitable intervention. In fact, the African Ice Hockey Championship was established in 2016, with teams from Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia; and, before Tim Hortons’ intervention, Kenya was already seeking to establish a men’s national team that could eventually qualify for future Olympic Games. The omission of such stories from this narrative implies to the audience that Tim Hortons is playing a larger role in the development of Kenyan and African hockey than it actually is.

Finally, I am unsure what to make of the absence of the women Ice Lions. We do not know why they were not included in the trip to Toronto, so I don’t want to assume that they were intentionally excluded. Further, Tim Hortons has invested heavily in girls’ sport and actively courts both women and men with its commercials—so it would seem that bringing over the women team members would fit in with its general strategy of promoting female hockey. It may be that the women were unable to make the trip for personal, financial, word, or other reasons. And, given the success of this commercial, it wouldn’t surprise me if Tim Hortons eventually attempts to capitalize on the positive PR by arranging a similar campaign around Kenyan women hockey players.

However, what the absence of the female Ice Lions does mean is that this commercial ends up playing out as a male fantasy (not unlike this Budweiser commercial from 2012)—the opportunity to partake in this dream hockey experience is available to men, the celebrities who visit them are men, and the opponents are men. Hockey as a unifying force, bringing together “us” and “them,” remains a masculine domain. Further, while Kenyan girls are shown learning the game, this suggests that the participation of these women is a future event that will occur due to Tim Hortons largesse—ignoring, completely, the ongoing participation of Tasha Otieno, Carroll Joseph, Alexcy Wambui, Faith Wambui and Faith Sihoho on the Nairobi club.

Ultimately, Tim Hortons has scored a marketing coup and continued its tradition of deploying a mythologized vision of hockey to intimately tie its brand to the sport and Canadian identity. In doing so, it has reproduced a number of problematic representations in an uncritical manner. I hope that, despite the heartwarming story presented in “The Away Game,” some viewers retain a critical perspective on this marketing effort.

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