The Brick Project Conversations, Part Fourteen: Verity and James

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The Brick Project Conversations, Part Fourteen: Verity and James

by Verity Norman, Managing Editor

About James

jamesCaponJames is an advertising and marketing executive who currently runs start-up, Gap Daemon, a social network for young travelers, many of whom are taking a year off between high school and college. James previously spent more than 25 years in senior management positions at Levi Strauss and Co. He oversaw the brand’s European recovery in the late 1980s, and then went on to build Dockers into a one billion dollar brand.

He was then selected as President of Levi’s USA in 1999, and oversaw sales operations of Levi’s in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

James was brought up and educated in the sunny south of England, where he studied Mathematics and classical guitar. Following his success with Levi’s in San Francisco, he and his family relocated back to Europe, and he completed his MBA at the Solvay Business School in Brussels.

James’ commitment to young people and lifelong learning made him a perfect fit for contributing to the Brick Project as an Executive Board member. James has been a close friend and colleague of Brick Project founder, Karim, since 1998.


James and I met some years ago for a Brick Project Board meeting in England.

Karim and I had recently completed some work with the Doon School in India and Karmelava Balys Baracas School in Lithuania. James and our colleague, Edward Moodie, met us and advised us on the next stage of “brick-building.”

Click here to view the ‘old’ Brick Project website featuring James and Edward:

James and I recently reconnected, as we prepare for the relaunch of the Brick Project in 2016. Considering James’ extensive background in marketing, and the recent hullabaloo regarding the “mixed race family” Cheerios advertisement, I thought this might be a good time for us to take another look at racial stereotypes – an issue we looked at often in early Brick Project program.

The Ad about The Smiling Cheerio Family

Take a look at this recent Cheerios ad, which caused an outcry over their use of a mixed race family:

If you haven’t already heard about the uproar this advertisement has caused, then click here to read this explanation from the Huffington Post.

Response to the Ad about The Smiling Cheerio Family

And lastly, have a look at how young children responded when they saw the advertisement, and when they had heard about all the backlash:

James, as an advertising and marketing executive with an enormous amount of experience and success in this field, what is your response to the Cheerio’s ad?

And what do you think of the children’s response?

It’s surprisingly difficult when you’ve got used to a pretty multi-cultural environment to take the criticisms of the Cheerio’s commercial seriously. I couldn’t believe all the hullabaloo at first, but that’s partly because the thought that anything made from highly processed carbohydrates and flavoured with high fructose corn syrup can be good for your heart is kind of ridiculous!

Putting that aside, most of those people who commented negatively and/or abusively must have grown up in a time when segregation by colour was the norm and thankfully, that’s hard to find now. We are still faced with the legacy of those times though and we mustn’t forget that the first black/white screen kiss on US television took place less than 50 years ago (attributed to Captain Kirk and his Communications Officer, Lieutenant Uhura in StarTrek – and they probably only got away with it because it was classified as science fiction!).

Twitter and other forms of social media has given a voice to activist lobbyists of all types – I have heard them referred to as the noisy minorities.

This is both good news and bad news and something I think we will all have to live with, distasteful as it can be. The alternative is censorship, which impinges on basic freedoms.

Time eventually rights the wrongs (social injustices) of the past, and to achieve this, we need a few nudges along the way. I see the Cheerios ad as one of these nudges. The brand has probably profited greatly from all the additional YouTube views and the resulting publicity, but so has the nation as a whole. Interestingly, just over 4 million have looked at the commercial on YouTube yet nearly 6 million have watched the children’s response.

That cannot be a bad thing. Yet, in the words of the black actor who plays the Dad: “I wasn’t upset or anything; I was pretty much really excited to have this type of reaction so we could see where we still stand in America”. Sad but true; but on balance, probably beneficial to the inevitably more mixed-up family profiles we will see over time. According to the ‘children’s response’ video; 1 in 10 couples are now interracial, a rise of 28% over 13 years.

Why is it important for ads like this to be created in today’s world?

What role do they play in highlighting the discourse on racial equality?

As an Englishman, I remember registering surprise at hearing Michael Jackson’s hit single ‘Beat it’ which reached number one in the USA just 30 years ago, referred to as crossover music. And they were not referring to the mixture of rhythm and blues and rock music. It appears that his catchy single was a crossover in another sense too. A major contributor to the song’s success was that the ‘white’ radio station WPLJ in New York agreed to play it because the guitar solo was played by Eddie van Halen, a white rock guitarist. Up until then, I must confess that I had never thought of separating the music I played by the skin colour of the performers – needless to say, I don’t today!

Way back when, I used to drive to work from my home in Frankfurt, Germany to the small town of Heusenstamm nearby. The American Forces news came on at about 5 minutes to the hour; then I’d switch to the BBC Home Service (Radio 4 today) which I could just pick up on long wave, and then a few minutes later to the local German news. It really hit home how the same news could be reported in three quite different ways. It also showed me at a practical level how news was reported to the listening target group – particularly, what was considered to be the relevant international news was highly filtered. Today, I read the English newspapers online and the same mind games can be experienced on many themes. You really see how the editorial stance is filtered to reinforce the opinions of their readership. It has left me contemplating just how huge that influence must be in a totalitarian state, especially as children begin to develop their cultural and political framework of ideas, of what is right and wrong.

As someone who has been involved in and supportive of TBP for well over a decade please could you talk a bit about your background and motivation for being involved in the program, and why you think it’s important for programs like The Brick Project to exist in 21st century schools?

I also know you’re involved in and helped start Gap Daemon.

Please could you talk a bit about your work with Gap Daemon and why you’re doing this work at this stage in your career?

When Karim first talked to me about The Brick Project it awoke many feelings within me. Above all, it seemed an ideal way to promote a greater cultural understanding amongst children of an impressionable age across country and continental demarcation lines.

One of the very best exercises we can do is to try and imagine things as seen through someone else’s eyes. Some can, some cannot, some are encouraged not to and many choose not to. Thanks to the Brick Project, children in diverse classrooms across the world can experience dialogue and a common study programme with others of their age using modern technology, and this becomes an amazing way of starting this process of understanding.

Seen at face value, Gap Daemon, the current start-up I’m working on (we’re locked in re-financing talks at the moment) is simply a travel social network for young people which helps them get the best up-to-date advice and meet other like-minded individuals on their travels. But it is also aimed at promoting international understanding, specifically for that growing body of 18-29’s who are still in a pre-career stage. A growing number of them, well into the millions now, want to spend a few months or even a couple of years travelling the world, volunteering, teaching, working and generally finding out more about how the world really works… and, I guess, more about themselves. Such an experience is invariably beneficial to all parties involved, though not always in easily measurable ways.

It impresses me however, that universities such as Harvard College will give priority to those students who have taken a year out before starting their studies, simply because they find that they make better all-round students.

Although I still run workshops and seminars on new aspects of marketing, particularly neuromarketing and its implications on decision-making, I want to continue playing – at least at some level – a small role in promoting cross-cultural understanding; promoting the similarities rather than the differences between people, irrespective of race, religion or whatever differentiator gets singled out. Where better to start than with children and young adults and my involvement with the Brick Project and Gap Daemon illustrates this interest.

To this extent, I believe that the Cheerios commercial as well as the resulting discussions have added value to this subject. I’ll still avoid eating them though!