It turns out many historians, sociologists and researchers agree with the premise: by not including these groups in the mainstream discussion, you're essentially sidelining them, footnoting them...keeping them at bay. The resulting white national identity remains, therefore, in-tact. And multicultural Americans...well, they're not part of the MAIN American story. They're just sideshows.
Listening to her the other day discuss her thesis (she's now getting her Masters on the subject at UofChicago), I cringed as I wondered if we in advertising aren't adding to the problem. Sure, we're not writing textbooks, but we are creating pop culture--if we do our jobs right. And our business models are set up to take advantage of siloed ethnic groups (Gen market does white, Hispanic Hispanics, and so on...)
I understand where this all came from. For a long time, Multicultural America did not exist for marketers. It was up to pioneers in the area to show that these groups existed. General Market shops sure didn't care. Their staffs were as Ivy League, white-as-can-be.
So the Multicultural Advertising Industry was born. And in a way, it gave a voice to consumers and made them important to marketers (which is presumably a good thing). And you've got folks like me building campaigns for Hispanics and African Americans and Asians. Campaigns that live apart from the main campaign. Sales went up. Clients were happy. Good stuff.
But then demographics continued to change. And now you're talking about 40% of the population in some age groups is non-white. And you have to ask yourself...does the current model really work under those circumstances? Can you really have a gen market shop focusing primarily on the white folks, while the AA agency focuses only on the African Americans? Not only does it seem absolutely opposed to the way culture is created today...but it seems somehow...socially irresponsible. Doesn't it?
Keeping 40% of the population on the sidelines...forcing them into their own chapters and sections and away from the main discussion should probably make our skin crawl.
I know. I know. Their experiences are different, and intrinsically they are different folks in many ways. I wrote a piece on that very subject a while ago (see it here). And AHAA is beating that drum like there's no tomorrow. "The population is definitely more multicultural but that only reinforces the need for customized, one-to-one communication," says Jessica Pantanini, chair of AHAA.
But at what point do you say...ok, those "different folks"...well, they are no longer the "different" ones. They represent a huge chunk of this country and calling their experience not-mainstream seems wrong. At some point you say "their experience, THAT'S the new American experience"
Unfortunately, ghettoizing is good for business. Gen Market and MC shops alike (not to mention media outlets) benefit from it. So whereas in other areas (politics, say) you have inspiring African American voices clamoring for the inclusion in the mainstream discussion, in advertising you don't. Instead, you have multicultural folks pulling the other way. Fighting for the Multicultural-only angle. Gen Market shops have been happy to oblige...they were never terribly into marketing to multicultural folks. And in the end? You end up ghettoizing the groups. And everyone is happy. Right?
This is not meant to be a slamming of the industry, or a criticism of the way we've been doing business. It's simply meant as a thought starter. A question.
And no, I don't mean the solution to be strictly self-serving. I believe in Crossculturalism. Which is, essentially, leading with the multicultural consumer in the total market. I can do that at my current shop, which is staffed for that. But so can multicultural-only shops. And that's where I think the opportunity lays. Having Multicultural folks lead the discussion in the general market. Isn't that what La Comu and Translation are doing to some degree? It's a tough road...but I'm guessing it's probably the right one.
And it doesn't mean that you no longer do MC advertising. Why wouldn't you execute a platform in Spanish? Or a program with BET? Great places to reach and connect with those folks. But it does mean that if that's all you're doing...if that's the extent of your brand's multicultural voice, you're probably ghettoizing.
In the end, it's not easy to marginalize a majority, so I'm sure the problem will correct itself (and many brands will pay the price of being irrelevant to multicultural audiences). But given the current climate, it looks like it may take a while for advertising agencies (and history textbooks), to catch up.