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Lewis Williams

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Nivea Campaign Highlights Ad Industry's Cultural Sensitivity Problem

Posted: 08/29/11 04:04 PM ET

The blogosphere has been abuzz over a recent ad campaign for Nivea skin care, and for good reason. The ad in question features a young, African-American man holding and throwing away his own head -- complete with angry face, Afro and beard -- accompanied by the tagline "Re-Civilize Yourself."

Anyone with even a modicum of racial sensitivity would be able to tell you that putting the word "uncivilized" next to an African-American man is an offensive image. Were the makers of this ad asleep in American History class when African slaves and their descendants were looked upon as the "uncivilized" property of their white slave masters? Were they blinded by the media's consistently one-sided portrayal of the young, African-American male as someone to be feared?

This is hardly the first time ad campaigns that have been patently offensive to African-Americans have made their way to print, television and the web. Consider that just a few weeks ago Summer's Eve issued an offensively stereotypical ad urging African-American women to use its products to attract more men in the club.

I've been in the advertising business for more than 30 years, and I've seen ads that completely disregard a minority point of view make their way into the mainstream more times than I can count. I'm consistently baffled by how these campaigns make their way through the approval process at agencies and marketing companies without someone raising the red flag.

It is easy to blame the creative team that wrote and handled art-direction of the piece, but the work starts long before that. Consider the rigorous approvals an ad must go through before it makes its way to print. The ad agency is briefed on what the marketer is trying to do within their target audience. The creatives then come up with an idea, which the client must approve. Then the ad is cast, shot and reviewed again before the final product is released.

There are a lot of steps, and the crux of the problem is that there aren't enough minority voices at the table for many of them. Why? Because many marketers don't demand it. The advertising industry still has not embraced racial and cultural diversity by hiring enough qualified African-Americans and other people of color. Historically, it has been difficult for minorities to break into advertising and succeed.

In this climate of tight budgets, companies are looking for ways to cut marketing costs, and under the umbrella of "post racial America," they see no need for specialized agencies that are experts in targeting the African-American consumer. So, when companies depend on ad agencies or marketing partners without the correct staffing, knowledge and sensitivity towards the African-American consumer, obvious missteps like those from Nivea and Summer's Eve will occur.

Minority consumers have always consumed products, so why wouldn't ads strive to represent them in a positive manner?

My advice to the Mad Men and Women on the Avenue? Remember: In this challenging and complex
multicultural consumer world in which we live, diversity is more important than ever before. Influencers, attitudes, beliefs and habits of African-American and all consumers are transforming too quickly for marketers to keep track. Having the right personnel on hand to maneuver the space is essential. Better yet -- hire an agency that specializes in multicultural marketing -- one that invests its time, money, resources, tools and brainpower to study a specific segment. Maybe then we will really start to move forward.