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 neighbour’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.
Whites and blacks are shown returning from war, surfing, skateboarding, dancing and waving American flags at political rallies, while a boyish Dylan and a present-day will.i.am take turns singing the Dylan classic, “Forever Young,” each in his signature style.
Or, take the latest hit spot from ETrade, which stars a nine-month-old white boy and his newest buddy – a black infant who, from his own high chair, 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.
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,” says 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.”
To advertisers, these “multiculti” ads are 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,” says Danny Allen, managing director at SENSIS, an ad agency in Los Angeles that specializes in reaching multicultural audiences through digital and online media.
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 non-whites in decision-making and creative positions within the advertising industry itself.
Are multiculti ads, then, an accurate barometer of Americans’ racial progress, a showcase of hopes in that direction – or a reminder of how far there still is to go?
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 per cent 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 underway in what the Selig Center describes as “The Multicultural Economy.”
They note that African-American buying power has risen from $318 billion in 1990 to $845 billion in 2007 – a 166 per cent gain. Whites’ buying power rose 124 per cent during that period, while the economic clout of Latinos rose by 307 per cent, to $862 billion, over that span.
The black population grew 27 per cent from 1990 to 2007, compared to 15 per cent for whites and 21 per cent overall. And the percentage of multiracial citizens, though just 1.6 per cent of America’s 302 million people, is swelling at 10 times the rate of white population growth.
If current trends continue, demographers say, non-whites 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,” says Shreffler. “They recognize there is money involved.”
Which, perhaps, explains a couple of other current ads: A black-and-white commercial for Gatorade Mission G features close-ups of white, black and multiracial athletes who tell viewers about heart, hustle and soul; a spot promoting Cash4Gold.com has two famously bankrupt celebrity pitchmen of different races, Ed McMahon and rap artist MC Hammer, explaining how easy it is to liquidate gold cufflinks, golf clubs and the like.
Karl Carter, chief executive of the Atlanta marketing agency GTM Inc. (Guerrilla Tactics Media), calls this the “Benetton Approach” since it echoes a 1980s campaign by United Colors of Benetton that pictured interracial close-ups, such as a white woman and a black woman hugging an Asian baby.
Such ads often depict, Carter says, “a bunch of different races playing along, side by side, Kumbaya.”
Carter wonders how long they will be effective – particularly as America “beiges” and race becomes less essential to how individuals self-identify. Over the long run, advertisers would do better, he says, to focus on a cultural approach with versatile images and campaigns easily adapted to highly individualized tastes. Put another way: How do hip-hoppers feel? What are the common desires of surfers or kayakers?
In these times, multiculturalism is cool – likely to get cooler, says Sonya Grier, a marketing professor at American University who is studying how consumers of different races respond to multicultural ads and “ethnically neutral” models in ads.
The Obama presidency, in her view, will have enormous impact on the industries that set out to mould desires at a subconscious level.
“Now that the president is African-American, I think companies that were once afraid to put members of multiple ethnic groups in their ads might see a chance here to go ahead and take a risk, or even see it as necessary.”
Each semester, Williams, the University of Texas advertising professor, hands a Valentine’s Day ad to his students that depicts a black man presenting flowers to a white woman in a romantic setting. Most of his students don’t see anything wrong with it.
However, he adds, “When I ask them to take it home to show their parents and grandparents, the reaction I get is still, ‘We’re not quite ready for that yet.”‘
There aren’t many ads depicting multiracial families or biracial couples interacting normally at home, and in ads that depict professional settings, people of colour 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,” says Williams. “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.
Numbers are not the only reason black voices go unheard as ads are made. Says Grier, the marketing professor at American University: “I often have former classmates and MBA students who are in brand-marketing or advertising-related functions call me and say, “My company showed an ad, I thought it was stereotypical, but I was the only one in the room and did not know how to bring it up.”‘
Might today’s ads also be implanting false assumptions that race problems in the U.S. 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 says. “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 says, “hide the fact that poverty disproportionately affects certain groups.”
Indeed, African-Americans’ median income is just 61 per cent 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.
“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 says. “The problem with that, I tell them, is that distortions and false impressions never do anyone any good.”
Shreffler, 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 colour.
“Advertising is aspirational,” she adds. “It’s who we want to be, a lifestyle we want – not always who we are.”