Is advertising ghettoizing Multicultural Americans?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My wife is an AP US History teacher. She's been doing it for 10 years. But just quit, disheartened by the homogenized Eurocentric textbooks she's forced to teach from. The story the textbooks tell, she explained, is a white story. African Americans, Hispanics and Asians are relegated to separate chapters or sections within the book (literally), and not as part of the main narrative. And this, she feels, essentially ghettoizes these groups and forbids them a place in the identity of the nation.

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.


Louis Pagan said...

Very good and necessary post.

Ken, great post!
It would be great if you could expand a little bit on the approach that you are using at your current shop (we discussed this over the phone a couple of months ago). There are other agencies that are using the same label (Crossculturalism) but -to use your words- are still ghettoizing...

Ken Muench said...

Hey Louis. Nice to see you here. Gustavo, great talking to you. The core thing behind Draftfcb is that the Multicultural team is embedded in the core team. So, although we are a Multicultural unit, made up of Hispanic, AA and Asian pros, we actually also reside inside each account group. It's not terribly efficient. You end up having your Multicultural pros in all Total Market meetings. But half the time, the creative you end up producing for the Total Market actually comes from us (the MC folks). But, on the other hand, the "general market" work is more ethnic feeling because of it. Besides, every single piece of research that the "general market" does, has Hispanic, AA and Asian samples. So does the strategy, and so does the creative.

It has it's challenges, but in the end, it's really cool watching the "gen market" become more interesting.

Feliz dia del pavo!

Ted Adamczyk said...

Insightful, on target, great post.

Joe Kutchera said...

Sadly, there are a few exceptions to the problem you've presented, one being Music History of the 20th Century which includes luminaries like Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Machito, etc. But mostly you're right. We need new ways of defining the new "multicultural" America. I have my doubts about that term. It homogenizes a very diverse group and yes, it does ghettoize them to a certain extent. Who can write the new history books? Will your wife have the time now? Seriously!

Ken Muench said...

Thanks for the comments Ted and Joe. I agree that the term Multicultural homogenizing, by the way. Good point. My overall thesis is more about breaking down the predominantly non-ethnic viewpoint in advertising.

My wife would kill for that job! It's pretty political, though, as you can imagine. Lots of interested parties want to rewrite the history of this country to their liking. A ver qué pasa!

Victor said...

While some may contribute to the ghetofication of the market, others contribute to the gentrification of the efforts. Some create multicultural capabilities with the intent to bring that business in as well, but look to do so in the most "efficient ways possible." Unfortunately that often means that genuine insights are left behind in the name of synergy. Your point here is very valid...but its only effective if it is accompanied by a genuine and deliberate desire to include the multicultural consumers in mind from inception. It requires ensuring research includes them representatively. It requires that media consider spill over and spill back and that the likes of Univision are looked at as a place to gather both Hispanics as well the required eye balls. It requires being willing to deliver nuanced messaging in English and in mass environments with high concentration of Hispanics or other segments. It requires a lot of things that quite often is not convenient or "efficient."

Below I will share something I posted on a linkedIn discussion that was about a related topic:

......The above points were just aimed at challenging ourselves to step out of a victim mentality and realize that this phenomenon was years in the making and we should have all seen it coming miles and miles away. Darwin once said that the species that survive and thrive are not the strongest or biggest....but the ones most amenable to change. What are we/you doing to change/adjust/evolve?

I for one am excited by the possibilities of the future provided we tackle some significant challenges.

I welcome a world where clients aim for integration. I challenge clients to consider that consolidation and integration are not synonyms....that integrated doesn't mean identical.

I welcome a world where clients aim for big ideas based on universal human truths. i challenge them to fully grasp the needs and motivations of all those humans across ethnicities. I challenge them to consider the delivery of their marketing programs across all demographics and to consider the role of multicultural targeted vehicles towards delivering all of said desired humans.

I welcome a world of channel neutral planning. I challenge planners to extend that neutrality to matters of language and ethnicity. I challenge them to consider the possibility that traditional mainstream targets may not be the best targetive opportunity. for example if your target is millenials then nearly half your target is multicultural. I challenge them therefore to plan allocations and messaging accordingly.

In my view the answers to these challenges will result in the agency and the marketer of the future. And unfortunately as with any evolutionary moment, only those with the flexibility to successfully adapt to the changing conditions will survive. I believe we are in a transformational moment where some will evolve and thrive, some will evolve and fail, some will die and some newness will be born. Where will you be?

Ken Muench said...

Love it Victor. Absolutely agree with every single point. You probably don't have a lot of fans though. Many of the gen market shops targeting these groups are doing so "efficiently" and many of the ethnic shops targeting these groups are seeing this change as the death of their industry.

Thanks for your eloquent and insightful viewpoint. Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Would recommend Howard Zinn and the Zinn Education project to your wife. Perhaps she already knows of course.

It's probably targeting just the right audience. There needs to be proper sensitivity though.

Debra Mennins said...

The difference in racial identity is still being monetized in a free enterprise world. Stopping that also means stopping free enterprise. Although its a simplistic view, there is a lot that can't be changed since it works and puts food on the table. My friend who works in dental advertising makes a lot of campaigns that are targeted to a specific demographic which plays to the facts like racial identity.

Maia Dobson said...

I work in an advertising agency in New York for quite some time now and I think what we do is just to keep up with current. While we do recognize the multi-culture of our nation, our aim is still to set trends.

Grace Johnson said...

I've been with long island marketing agency and in my opinion, I think, that the author is somewhat influenced by the culture he's been living with. Most of the times, even if we keep on saying that we don't mean any bias view, time will come that we will always incline to some ideas and concepts we believe is right, I'm saying this because we, sometimes, use this inclination while performing some marketing ads.

ashish mahajan said...

I really like the way you have explained the whole article. It is very informative.
multi-cultural advertising agency

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