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The color of advertising

Ever see an inner-city schoolyard filled with white, Asian and black teens shooting hoops? Or middle-aged white and Latino men swigging beer and watching the Super Bowl on their black neighbor’s couch? Or Asians and Latinos dancing the night away in a hip-hop club?

All it takes is a television.

Yes, that mesmerizing mass purveyor of aspiration, desire and self-awareness regularly airs commercials these days that show Americans of different races and ethnicities interacting in integrated schools, country clubs, workplaces and homes, bonded by their love of the products they consume.

Think about one of Pepsi’s newest spots, “Refresh Anthem,” which debuted during the Super Bowl. The ad, which features Bob Dylan and hip-hop producer will.i.am, is a collage of images from the ’60s and today that celebrate generations past and present.

Or, take the latest hit spot from E TRADE, which stars the E TRADE Baby, a 9-month-old white boy, and his newest buddy — a black infant who, from his own highchair, agrees with the wisdom of online investing even in a down economy.

Ads like these are part of a subtle, yet increasingly visible strategy that marketers refer to as “visual diversity” — commercials that enable advertisers to connect with wider audiences while conveying a message that corporate America is not just “in touch,” racially speaking, but inclusive.

It wasn’t always like this. For much of the past century, “minorities were either invisible in mainstream media, or handed negative roles that generally had them in a subservient position,” said Jerome Williams, a professor of advertising and African-American studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Today, you’re starting to see a juxtaposition of blacks and whites together, doing the things people do ... Now, advertisers are not in a position of pushing social justice. But to the extent that they can put whites and blacks together in situations, I think that’s a good thing.”

These “multiculti” ads may be evidence of the vitality of assimilation, America’s distinctive, master trend. To advertisers, though, they’re simply smart business — a recognition of a new cultural mainstream that prizes diversity, a recognition that we are fast approaching a day when the predominant hue in America will no longer be white.

“Going forward, all advertising is going to be multicultural by definition, because in most states, majority ethnic populations will no longer exist,” said Danny Allen, managing director at SENSIS, an ad agency in Los Angeles that specializes in reaching multicultural audiences through digital and online media.

Just as the Obama campaign sensed the nation’s desire to reconcile its racial problems, he added, “advertisers are also tapping into that same yearning, particularly among younger Americans, to put racial divisions behind us and move forward in a more unified way.”

And yet, some critics wonder if depicting America as a racial nirvana today may have an unintended downside — that of airbrushing out of the public consciousness the economic and social chasms that still separate whites, blacks and Latinos.

Even on Madison Avenue, which is generating the inclusive messages, recent studies find few nonwhites in decision-making and creative positions within the advertising industry itself.

Are multiculti ads, then, an accurate barometer of our racial progress, a showcase of our hopes in that direction — or a reminder of how far we still have to go?

ADVERTISING CHANGES AS DEMOGRAPHICS SHIFT

In the days when Aunt Jemima appeared on boxes of pancake mix as a servile “Mammy” character — a plump, smiling African-American woman in a checkered apron and a kerchief — advertisers aimed largely for the so-called “general market,” code for white consumers, rather than smaller, satellite “ethnic” markets.

Whites still hold most of the economic clout in the United States — 85.5 percent of the nation’s annual buying power of $10 trillion, according to a 2007 study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.

In recent years, though, marketers have been revising old assumptions and campaigns in anticipation of profound shifts in the nation’s demographics, and in reaction to changes already under way in what the Selig Center describes as “The Multicultural Economy.”

They note that:

Ÿ African-American buying power has risen from $318 billion in 1990 to $845 billion in 2007 — a 166 percent gain. Whites’ buying power rose 124 percent during that period.

Ÿ The combined buying power of African-Americans, Asians and Native Americans was $1.4 trillion in 2007, a gain of 201 percent since 1990. Meanwhile, the economic clout of Latinos rose by 307 percent, to $862 billion, over that span.

Ÿ The number of black-owned companies rose 45 percent from 1997 to 2002 — 4 1/2 times faster than the national average — and their receipts grew slightly faster than all others. Native American-owned businesses increased by 67 percent, Asian firms 24 percent, Latino companies 31 percent.

Ÿ The black population grew 27 percent from 1990 to 2007, compared with 15 percent for whites and 21 percent overall. And the percentage of multiracial citizens, though just 1.6 percent of America’s 302 million people, is swelling at 10 times the rate of white population growth.

If current trends continue, demographers say, nonwhites will be in the majority in America by 2042 — a prospect not lost on advertisers, says Melanie Shreffler, editor of Marketing to the Emerging Majorities, an industry newsletter.

Marketers “aren’t turning out multicultural ads for the good of society,” Shreffler said. “They recognize there is money involved. If you skip out on a group that is going to be half the population by 2042 — good heavens, who are you marketing to?”

SOME RACIAL BOUNDARIES REMAIN TO BE CROSSED

Four men in suits and ties are eating in a Holiday Inn Express breakfast bar when they see a pretty white woman enter.

“We’re going to send her a plate of bacon,” says the black member of the group. His white colleague suggests a cheese omelet. No, an English muffin would be more proper, advises an older, white friend. How about a hot cinnamon roll, asks a fourth man, who looks multiethnic.

“Cinnamon roll?” the black man asks, incredulously. “That’s something you send your sister. I’m going to send her some bacon.” He hands a plate of bacon to a waitress, who delivers it to the young woman — “Compliments of those guys.”

“Ohhh,” the woman exclaims, uncomfortably, and with an awkward smile and a sheepish shrug, holds up what she really wants for breakfast: “Yogurt.”

This 2008 spot is clever not only for its humor, but because it gingerly tests one of several racial boundaries most advertisers are still loath to cross: The presentation of interracial courting or romance.

“It’s still one of the three taboos in the industry,” said Williams, the University of Texas advertising professor.

Other no-nos?

There aren’t many ads depicting multiracial families or biracial couples interacting normally at home, whether having supper or watching a movie. And in ads that depict professional settings, people of color rarely appear in charge — as CEOs, say, giving presentations to their board of directors.

“Every now and then you see something that bucks the trend,” Williams said. “But when you do content analyses of ads, you are astounded by how much stereotypes are still part of the advertising we all digest.”

One reason that racial distortions persist may be the relatively low numbers of blacks in the $31 billion advertising industry, and a dearth of blacks in positions of power.

A report released in January by the Madison Avenue Project, a coalition of legal, civil rights and ad industry leaders, found dramatic levels of bias in the industry, with African-American professionals lagging in pay, hiring, promotions and assignments.

Some findings:

Ÿ Black college graduates earn 80 cents for every dollar made by their equally qualified, white counterparts, and salaries of $100,000 are disproportionately less likely for African-American managers and professionals.

Ÿ Sixteen percent of large advertising firms employ no black managers or professionals; in the overall labor market, 7 percent of companies are without blacks in those positions.

Ÿ Blacks are only 62 percent as likely as whites to work in the powerful “creative” and “client contact” functions.

ADS DON’T ALWAYS DEPICT REALITY

Despite their flaws, it would be hard to argue that the multicultural messages of today aren’t vastly more dignified and realistic in their portrayal of minorities than those that appeared a few decades ago.

And yet, might today’s ads also be implanting false assumptions that our race problems have been fixed, that all Americans are living comfortable, upper-middle-class lifestyles in racially harmonious settings?

Charles Gallagher, chair and professor of the sociology department at La Salle University, worries about just this.

“If you were to come down from another planet and watch TV, you’d think that all of these human beings share a lot of intimacy, regardless of the way they look,” Gallagher said. “But the reality is, people of different races don’t share social space like that.”

An ad showing Latinos and Asians eating potato chips at a softball game or whites and blacks sporting pricey watches while dining out can, he said, “hide the fact that poverty disproportionately affects certain groups.”

Indeed, African-Americans’ median income is just 61 percent that of whites, and blacks are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed, government figures show.

Whites 65 or older receive 25 times as much income from retirement investments as elderly blacks, and poverty rates for black children are 2 1/2 times higher than for whites.

About 80 percent of whites live in neighborhoods in which 95 percent of their neighbors are also white.

“My students always say to me, ‘Isn’t it better to have these ads? It’s kind of a fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of thing,’’’ Gallagher said. “The problem with that, I tell them, is that distortions and false impressions never do anyone any good.”

Scheffler, the ad industry newsletter editor, says marketers aren’t sociologists and in the end green — not black or white or brown — is often the most important color.

“Advertising is aspirational,” she said. “It’s who we want to be, a lifestyle we want — not always who we are.”

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