Race Matters in Advertising
By David Morse, President and CEO, New American Dimensions, LLC
Black Enterprise Magazine Chief Calls Ad Industry ‘Racist,’ reads the headline in an article run this week in Advertising Age.
According to the article, Earl “Butch” Graves Jr., the President and CEO of Black Enterprise said that the advertising industry is “licensed to practice racism.” The comments
were made at an event to promote the magazine’s annual “40 Best Companies for Diversity” report. “This is one of the most racist industries in this country. Period. I’m angry
about it. Agencies are licensed to practice racism, not just in hiring but also investing in these media.”
Graves is talking about the ongoing battle that African American advertising agencies face with mainstream shops for African American consumer dollars. He cites figures from
multicultural advertising agency Global Hue as an example of the race gap in marketing budgets – 20 percent of consumers who buy a Chrysler 300C are Black, yet a significantly
smaller amount of the vehicle’s advertising budget is spent targeting African Americans directly.
Said Eugene Morris, head of E. Morris Communications, a Chicago based company that specializes in targeting African Americans, “Marketers assume that their message reaches African
Americans. But reaching them is not selling them. African American agencies develop culturally relevant messages.” He goes on to point out the widely divergent media habits between
Blacks and the general Market. “I can tell you that, for years, ‘Seinfeld’ was the number one TV show. I’ve never seen it.”
Moderator’s Comment: How effectively can African Americans be reached with the same messages as Whites? How much does racism enter the equation?
In Graves’ semi-autobiographical book, “How to Succeed in Business without Being White,” he recounts one of his earliest successes; a sales call to a Vice
President at Hertz Rent-a-Car Company. According to Graves, after showing the Hertz VP some market statistics, he “demanded that [he] show his appreciation and awareness of his
loyal African American customers by purchasing full-page color ads in several issues of Black Enterprise during the next several months.” Hertz bought the ad space.
Did Graves play the “race card?” Absolutely. But that’s how the game was played. It had to be played that way to get marketers to see the value of the African
But times have changed, and things aren’t as black and white as they used to be, if you’ll pardon the pun. There are now 43 million Hispanics in the United
States, and millions of them prefer speaking Spanish. So African American marketing dollars get diverted. “After all, African Americans speak English,” goes the argument. “We’ll
reach them with our general market campaign.”
We’ve also seen the emergence of so-called “urban marketing”; a kind of hip, multicultural approach to advertising that plays to hip-hop sensibilities.
And more African American dollars get diverted. “Our mainstream ads now reflect African American culture,” is the thinking. “We’re reaching them.”
Our research consistently tells the story that mainstream ads, urban or otherwise, are not the solution. To begin with, Eugene Morris is right – African
Americans and Whites consume totally different media, as Nielsen Media research reveals on any given week. Secondly, Blacks and Whites will respond differently to an ad – the
same ad, shown in the same context.
To truly connect with an African American consumer, marketers need to answer the question posed by marketer Pepper Miller in the title of her book, “What’s
Black about It?” Good ads need to reflect African American culture and values. They need to go beyond simple casting. And if you’re targeting African Americans that weren’t raised
on hip-hop, they need to go beyond “urban.”
Graves is right for reproaching marketers for not advertising in his magazine. Black Enterprise, and other African American media, are important
and effective vehicles for reaching Black consumers. But crying racism doesn’t serve his purpose. Educating marketers about the need to reach out to African American consumers
and the corresponding financial benefits does. –
David Morse – Moderator