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Marketers: Stop Looking in 'Mirrors' and Start Looking Forward

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There are lots of kinds of bad advertising, many more bad than good, I would venture to guess. Some are truly awful, some are fairly benign. Each has its own reasons for being, and as with so many of life's small tragedies, the fault for their creation rarely lies with any one person. It takes a village... and I admit to having been party to many of them, in one way or another over the years. It's part of what happens in advertising. It's what we do while we try to get to the really brilliant stuff, the stuff that makes this business fun.

Lately I have been thinking about one particular strain of the bad stuff, one that I have heard referred to as "holding a mirror up to the consumer." It's found in both the general market and multicultural markets, and is predicated on the idea that if a brand can demonstrate that it knows enough about the consumer to reflect their lives, then consumers will have more trust, interest, confidence, or something, in the brand.

One of the hallmarks of this approach is that the key question consumers are asked in testing executions is "do you see yourself in it?" or "is this ad for you?" If the agency has done its job, it's not hard to get a "yes" on that. "Seeing yourself" in an ad simply means that it does a decent job of looking like regular life, the way it is today, right now. Which is fine, if regular life happens to be the setting for a brilliant creative idea.

But what has me thinking lately are those cases in which brands expect that simply reflecting a version of daily life will make audiences respond. What concerns me even more is when those audiences are minorities. My sense is that the expectation that a loosely "accurate" snapshot of the life of a minority underrepresented by most media should go a long way in creating goodwill, by mere virtue of the recognition itself. Apparently, in the early years of advertising to minorities, that idea seemed to make sense. It doesn't any more.

I don't think anyone, especially minorities, whose very definition in our culture is evolving at a pace and in ways never seen before, are likely to find a mirror terribly interesting today. As minorities, we no longer need validation in the form of recognition from brands, large or small. And I don't think many brands do a very good job of thinking beyond the mirror of today to imagine, with us, what our future in this country will look like.

The Wing/Experian Latino Influence Project, by looking at how Latinos are influencing the non-Latinos around them, starts to connect what life looks like today to what it might look like in the future. What we found is that when the general market holds a mirror up to Latino culture, in particular, they already see quite a bit of themselves in it. Because the future, and frankly, the presence of Latino culture is not only to be the passive recipient of "American" culture; more and more every day, Latino culture is influencing the broader culture. And Latinos are growing more and more aware of this influence. Which makes the future a pretty interesting place to imagine, for Latinos and everyone else. We don't know exactly what it will look like, but I would much rather be party to challenging brands to help envision it than to just keep recreating a version of today that is already dated. Physics dictates that a mirror does not allow you to see forward, which is what Latinos, African-Americans and other minorities do more than anyone.

So let's put the mirrors away.