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Ethnic marketing: when good intentions go wrong

Gary Nelson
Ethnic marketing: when good intentions go wrong Gary Nelson

I recently came across a banner ad for LowerMyBills.com. The sequence depicts a young Black woman in an office setting. She's dancing in her work area -- yes, dancing at work -- supposedly unaware of the camera that's capturing it all. We see the surprise on her face as she realizes she has been caught on film.


Is this a poor, stereotypical attempt to reach a niche? Or is it just good fun in a banner? Why is this Black woman shaking her thing at the office? Shouldn't she be focused on work? Is that why she needs to lower her bills?

As a Black man in the advertising industry, I find myself struggling with the ethnic marketing question. In today's era of consumption, most consumer needs (both retail and beyond) are cross-cultural. Sure, there are products produced for specific ethnic groups; when you're selling relaxer designed for African American hair, niche marketing is appropriate and necessary. But even then, such campaigns don't have to revolve around tired clichés and lowest-common-denominator stereotypes. And in broader consumer marketing, there's just no excuse.

Consider a typical, general market minivan ad: a Caucasian soccer mom dropping kids off at the game. Now replace the White faces with Black ones and insert an R&B soundtrack. Instead of a soccer game, let's have that van pull into a huge family reunion with fried chicken as far as the eye can see. Voila. Now you have an "African-American" minivan ad. Starting to feel uncomfortable? You should be.

Beyond the shades of minstrelsy in such campaigns, the problem is that this approach assumes consumers are incapable of any kind of empathy for those of a different ethnicity; that people cannot move beyond depicted scenarios involving a product to envision scenarios more suited to their own lives. If you want to reach Black consumers, you'd better make sure your ads are "good and Black;" likewise for Hispanics and Asians.

These are bad assumptions that lead to bad advertising. Nonetheless, they have clearly driven strategy and creative direction on countless campaigns, from the typical monochromatic fast food ad to tire commercials featuring, once again, dancing Black people (and dancing is relevant for tire buyers because ...?)

Of course, no one ever apologizes for success. At some level, right or wrong, enlightened or retrograde, ethnic niche marketing seems to sell product. This approach started in our fairly recent past when Madison Avenue acknowledged the spending power of minority groups and the need to tailor messaging to those groups.

In theory, ethnic marketing could give a voice and a face to the disenfranchised; in theory, it might even have addressed the specific cultural needs of a particular ethnicity. In practice, though, it more often than not reinforces cultural stereotypes and puts the spotlight on differences; differences that feed back into those stereotypes. And on a practical level, maybe these ads aren't as effective as we think they are, or as the alternative might be.

Think of the large Hispanic family, complete with matriarchal abuela and manly, authoritative papa seated at the table for a Sunday family dinner. Does this cultural stereotype actually reflect the Hispanic community in America? Yes and no. Yes, differences do exist across cultural lines, and the image of a large, tightly knit Hispanic family seated at dinner did come from somewhere. But many Hispanic consumers today would tell you that their dinner table landscape looks a lot different, and they resent being shoehorned into the same old tableau time and again, instead of being addressed through campaigns that acknowledge both the diversity within their own community, and the many commonalities they share with other Americans across ethnic lines.

So how do marketers of niche target products, as well as marketers of mass target products, avoid the ethnic marketing trap? Someone might raise a hand here and say "focus groups." I think the solution is a lot bigger than that.

Next page >>

Diversity starts at home
This isn't just about focus group testing; it's about diversity in advertising. And not just in the creative work, but inside the agencies themselves as well.

This can be invaluable in avoiding stereotypes. A diverse work force can cry "foul" from a place of knowledge and experience when something isn't quite right. It begins with asking the question: Is ethnic niche marketing the right answer to reaching a particular target demo? Is there a way to reach our desired demo without focusing on a perceived cultural difference, but rather, a shared cross-cultural consumer need? Everybody loves a dancing Black woman, unless they find her portrayal exploitative and insulting. Why take that chance?

Take a fresh look
People developing the creative and strategies need to be sure they're taking a fresh look at a given target. They need to be sure that their means of communication, the context through which a message is delivered, is relevant, not antiquated. If something feels like a stereotype, it probably is.

This isn't just sensitivity and enlightenment; it's good business. Nothing fades into the background faster than overly familiar clichés. And nothing cuts through the clutter better than the unexpected.

A current ad by a cable provider offers a refreshing alternative to the usual suspects: an East Indian woman in a sari dances with hip-hoppers. A bald Black man hangs out with Buddhist monks. People of all backgrounds blow out the stereotypes, transcend the niche marketing ghetto and make connections across cultural groups. Yes, you're speaking to the specific ethnic groups portrayed on the screen, but without treating them like the punch line of a Borscht Belt joke from days of yore.

Question the need
Take note: Ethnic niche marketing and ethnic diversity in advertising are not the same thing. Ethnically diverse ads can, and should, still speak to a mass audience. Ethnic niche ads speak only to a targeted group.

My (semi-) fictitious minivan example presents just one take on the tactic. Let's go back to our soccer mom. Assuming her scenario isn't one that would resonate in the Black community, a targeted ad was created, the faces and the music were switched out, and the context was shifted to something that someone assumed would be more relevant (the family reunion vs. the soccer game). Why? Why should it be necessary to create the African-American version of a TV spot like this one? For that matter, unless you're selling hair relaxer, why should any campaign be tailored to Black consumers or Hispanic consumers or Asian consumers, rather than targeting tire buyers or fast food lovers or soccer moms in general?

Now, shift the focus of the ad from race to a more universal, relevant characteristic. What if it's not a familiar ethnic face that consumers are looking for, but a socioeconomic peer? It's likely that consumers identify with subjects in advertisements that dwell in their own social strata. Why shouldn't a White, middle-class suburban soccer mom -- or a Hispanic, Asian or Black soccer mom -- be able to communicate to all middle-class suburban moms, across ethnicities? (Note the level playing field of context.) Instead of reinforcing stereotypes, the ad can serve to break them down, and also become more effective.

Consider a recent ad for Comcast highlighting the company's digital video recorder. A couple is in the maternity ward, the wife in labor. She delivers the child, but the husband missed the birth because he was out of the room getting coffee. "Can we do that again?" he says. It's a funny and effective ad. And, by the way, the couple was Black. But the pitch and the humor both transcend ethnicity.

Humanize the target
Targeting consumers by a characteristic of race is fundamentally dehumanizing, as if the color of the person's skin is more relevant than his actual needs and desires. At Organic, we develop fully fleshed-out personas for the people our campaigns target. Where do they live? How old are they, and how much do they earn? What are their days like? What media are they interacting with or exposed to, and when and how does it happen? What are their long- and short-term goals? What are their fears?

We try to get inside their minds to understand what they really want from a product, solution or service, and then use this understanding to develop messages that speak to them on that deeper level. Ethnicity is an afterthought. Even if we're selling to a Black woman who likes dancing, that's not going to be the focus of the ad, because it's just not relevant; unless we're selling night club memberships, that is.

Before the rise of niche marketing, this needs-based approach was fairly standard: What do overworked housewives really want from a mop? What turns kids on about breakfast cereal? How can we convince that midlife-crisis white collar worker to treat himself to a sports car? But somehow, that kind of nuance got lost in translation when it came to non-White consumers, and suddenly a thumping R&B soundtrack or a salsa-slinging abuela became all it took to penetrate a given niche. 

At the end of the day, we're all here to sell product, and the discussion above is intended to inform more effective campaigns as much as to redress social ills. But just for a moment, let's go ahead and focus on that social component.

I believe that a unique opportunity exists in America. We are all multi-cultural, we are African, Irish, Italian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, (the list goes on)-American. Considering the latter half of the hyphenation, and the fact that we all carry it as citizens, shouldn't we in the advertising industry emphasize the ties that connect us rather than the gaps that keep us apart?

We know the power of our industry. Advertising can change the way we think. It can educate and open eyes. It can bring people together around a cause. It has the power to move us to take action. Should we, the people who help to drive this industry, take responsibility for more than just selling? Can we actually affect social change?

If we walked away from depictions of stereotypes, would anyone follow? Or should we just keep the Black women dancing?

Gary Nelson is associate creative director at Organic. Read full bio.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Maki Papadopoulos

2007, November 26

Part of the solution is with Community-online.com (see ethnic communities).

Sample community: http://www.community-online.com/community.cfm?communityid=2

Maki Papadopoulos

"Empowering online communities"

Commenter: Bob G

2007, November 06

I think strong points were made in an attempt to show how advertising can be insensitive to certain ethnic groups, religions, etc. However, LMB is a very poor example. They have some of the worst and most simplistic creatives on the net. Should all White people be upset that LMB used a White couple seemingly dancing and fighting at the office??? http://adverlicio.us/lowermybills_com_crazy_dancing_couple_300x250

Commenter: B K

2007, November 01

As a former employee of LMB, I can assure you that very little thought goes into their creative strategy. My guess, based on experience, is that this video probably circulated around their office for weeks, before one of the designers integrated it into their advertising; Most likely in response to a creative brainstorming meeting, when the idea was jokingly proposed. Great topic, but LMB advertising is a bad example. By the way, I didn't even notice she was black until you pointed it out. However, LMB thanks you for once again perpetuating their undeserved 15 minutes of fame.

Commenter: Kate Brodock

2007, November 01

I just want to make one quick comment on this. While some ethnic marketing might go over the line, yes, it's also an interesting point to address the incredible pressure put on companies/agencies/etc (whether external pressure or internal pressure) to make sure they're keeping "PC" and showing diversity in some clips. Not that this should be the case.... I cringe often at the billboards or commercials that have crammed so many darn "people of ethnicity" into their ad just so they can't get slammed. So I don't know if all of these are necessarily using cliche stereotypes so much as making sure they're representing everyone.

Commenter: Ken c

2007, November 01

I was referring to the example he used....

Commenter: Jackson Hale

2007, November 01

This was a very well written article and the post above by Ken C very much misses the point that Gary makes in the difference between marketing to an ethnic niche which does emphasize differences and marketing to the diverse America that is inclusive and focuses on the things that everyone can identify with.

Commenter: Ken c

2007, November 01

Too Paranoid. This article assumed the White producer of the banner ads was making fun on Black people. What happen if the Marketing firms of this banner ads (LowerMyBills.com) is operated & owned by Black people???? I have seen a lot of people make fun of themselves and nothing wrong with it. Your article is creating a stereotype for people to view African American as sensitive group of people. People just stay away from African American just to avoid hurting their feeling in the future.

Commenter: Gavin Sutcliffe

2007, November 01

Hi Gary, This is a fascinating article, and I really enjoyed reading it. I'm the Editor of iMedia here in the UK, and I recognised so many simliarities in what you talk about with the ad industry over here. I'd very much like to link this article in the next UK edition, because I'm sure our readers here would find a great deal of relevance from what you speak about. With warm regards, Gavin Sutcliffe.