The Italian air carrier quickly took down their video and apologized on Twitter, following public outcry
The video, which has since been removed from the company’s YouTube page, also featured actors portraying current President Donald Trump as well as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. It was intended to promote the airline’s new flights to Washington, D.C.
The video sparked immediate outrage from the public on social media.
“This flew under the radar (no pun intended).,” wrote April Reign, creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. “Alitalia dropped an ad featuring a white actor in blackface portraying President Obama. In 2019. Read that again.”
Wrote another Twitter user, “this @Alitalia video showcasing a silent blackfaced “Obama” is reprehensive on so many levels: racism, extreme provincialism, wilful ignorance of facts, lack of historic knowledge. I hope company will apologize (but strongly doubt it).”
According to The Washington Post, the actor playing Obama is walking around Rome, flanked by bodyguards and accompanied by an interviewer. The interviewer approaches several Italians and asks them, “Hi! I wanted to ask you a question. Look at this man and tell me who he is.”
After the Italian residents identify him as Obama, the interviewer throws them a second question and asks where the former president was born.
The ad includes the response of one man who incorrectly guesses that Obama was born “in Africa” — an answer that drew further accusations of racism. In response, Alitalia took down the video, and issued an apology on Twitter.
“Alitalia deeply apologizes for the offense caused by the promotional video on our Washington route,” the statement read. “It has since been removed. For our Company, respect for everyone is mandatory, it was never our intention to hurt anyone and we will learn from what has happened.”
Some Twitter users responded by saying they would no longer fly the Italian airline due to the racist video.
“I was about to purchase a flight to Rome in Alitalia for next month but I have decided it would be best to fly @airfrance or @lufthansa after this ad. Just completely disgusting,” wrote one user.
“Wow. Never flying your airline again. We took Alitalia just last week from Milan and it was horrible. The plane was dirty, food was nasty and the customer service agents on the phone were the worst. #cancelled,” added another.
Another user replied to the apology, “How the hell did that even get through multiple levels of approval?”
“Everyone in that chain of command should be fired immediately,” an additional Twitter replier wrote.
Over the years, controversies surrounding the use of blackface have surfaced regularly, particularly in Europe. In 2013, a German public TV anchor received overwhelming accusations of racism after he asked members of his audience to paint their faces black to resemble two popular figures from a German children’s book, The Washington Post reported.
Despite the clear social media backlash to the action, the use of blackface was aired as planned.
Several months ago, Gucci faced similar accusations when the Italian company released a sweater with a black turtleneck obscuring the lower part of the wearer’s face, which many felt was a form of blackface. The company quickly apologized and stopped the sales of the sweater.