Over-heated debate or cultural appropriation? PR pros debate Jamie Oliver #Jerkgate

A heated debate has emerged over Jamie Oliver's new "punchy jerk rice", with the chef accused by some of cultural appropriation. PR professionals scrutinise Oliver's response (or lack of), and examine the tricky comms challenge.

UPDATE: Oliver issued this statement on Tuesday morning: "I've worked with flavours and spices from all over the world my whole career, learning and drawing inspiration from different countries and cultures to give a fresh twist to the food we eat every day. When I named the rice my intention was only to show where my inspiration came from."

Labour MP Dawn Butler was among those who have discussed the topic, alluding to Oliver’s alleged ignorance of jerk and questioning his motives.

Others supported this view:

A debate ensued, with others taking the opposite stance:

The debate followed shortly after Disney received criticism by some after casting British actor Jack Whitehall in a major role as a gay character. In a scenario that had echoes of the cultural appropriation arguments around Oliver, some gave the view that the role should have gone to a gay actor rather than Whitehall, who is not gay.

Below, PR experts give their views on #jerkgate from a comms perspective:

Oliver should speak up

Ruth Allchurch, UK MD, WE Worldwide

There are a few observations and learnings on #jerkgate. Firstly, every consumer brand needs to understand that authenticity is king and food brands in particular should know that provenance is queen, so trying to ‘fool’ consumers is only likely to have a backlash.

Secondly, silence doesn’t always make the problem go away and can do more damage than good for the brand. Thirdly, any celebrity chef, especially one of Jamie’s experience, should realise the buttons that need to be pressed in order to create a publicity storm (good or bad).

From a comms perspective, this is the perfect storm of a brand under attack and a void that gets filled with a wider social and political debate. A quick acknowledgement and admission that a few things weren’t done brilliantly is a good idea. This issue won’t cause his brand too much damage in isolation, but he can’t afford to keep creating debates around the authenticity of his brand as there will be long-term impact.

Apologise for misrepresentation

Warren Johnson, founder, W

These are two quite different stories. The Jamie Oliver story is one of straight-up misrepresentation. Clearly the recipe has no jerk ingredients and therefore the product is totally misleading. Even before you get into any debates on cultural appropriation, this is a case of inaccurate information. He might as well say it has fairy dust in it too. In this case, you need to make immediate apology and change the product name and information.

The second story [about Jack Whitehall and Disney] is more complex. The starting point, though, is that acting is make-believe, meaning that everyone should be qualified for every role and casting should be down to talent. The bigger issue is whether Disney wanted to make a bigger political statement here. I suspect this is out of line with the wider corporate comms strategy.

Kudos to Oliver for ignoring this nonsense

Peter Mountstevens, creative director and managing partner, Taylor Herring

If recipes were subject to copyright, 99.9 per cent of the world’s restaurants would be out of business, chicken tikka masala wouldn’t exist and long-departed chefs who invented the classics would be spinning in their graves (although estates would be coining it in).

This non-debate (the latest in a trend for hammering Oliver with anything and everything) has been given momentum and stoked by those seeking personal publicity to stress their own ‘jerk’ credentials. The jerk experts themselves can’t seem to agree on whether the term ‘jerk’ refers to the method of cooking or the marinade. Or both. But who cares when one of the key players has his own recipe for ‘reggae reggae PIZZA’?.

Such things certainly make it hard to argue about cultural authenticity. Thin crust and thin ice all round. Recipes and dishes evolve; we can cook what we like and we call it what we want. If you don’t like it, don’t eat it (and don’t buy the book).

So, kudos to Oliver and his team for rightfully ignoring this nonsense. They know full well that any kind of response would simply validate and prolong a story that should really run out of steam faster than a boiling pot of rice and peas (plus anything else you feel like adding).

Cases of cultural appropriation clearly merit an intelligent debate, but some of the recent targets have strayed wide of the mark and trivialised the real issues at stake.

This case is less about cultural appropriation and more about culinary creativity. Chefs add a pinch of this and a teaspoon of that to stamp their mark on a dish. The MP Dawn Butler – who waded into this row – really should have far bigger issues on her plate than a new rice dish from Mr Oliver.

A knee-jerk reaction would merely have fanned the flames of this frankly, ridiculous story.

Anyone for a chicken tikka masala lasagne?

Debate is overheated, but authenticity is important

James Ralph, director, business & corporate, Good Relations

The charges of cultural appropriation are like the product: commonly over-heated and need to be handled with care. British chefs have long-bastardised the term jerk, as most of us know from our kitchen cupboards.

The real danger for Brand Jamie is exposure of his lack of involvement in licensed products – his team need to consider steps to demonstrate his authentic influence in such recipes.

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