The media is undergoing an interesting transformation lately. Almost daily, I'm reading articles from websites such as Shadow and Act, The Hollywood Reporter or Indie Wire that share developments of movies and TV shows premiering with cast members of color. Just this past weekend "The Best Man Holiday" doubled the projected Box Office ticket sales. I'm not sure when the tidal wave began, but I will take a guess that it started after the astronomical success of shows like Scandal, The Housewives of Atlanta shows and the film "Think Like a Man" among several others that prevailed when given a chance in the mainstream battle field of ratings competition.
I always wondered how this would impact advertising, which is another equally powerful force alongside the likes of TV and film. I noticed several commercials aggressively targeting African American women while watching my imaginary bff Kerry Washington during Scandal the other week. Are companies taking a culturally sensitive approach in marketing to people of color now that folks are becoming more vocal about it?
I recently had an interesting call with Denene Jonielle Rodney of Zebra Strategies, a boutique company that specializes on performing marketing research and focus groups for minority advertising. Her role as a "cultural sensitivity consultant" places her in some interesting scenarios. She shared with me some of her own personal experiences dealing with the advertising industry's desire to reflect today's version of American society.
WHY DID YOU SEE A NEED FOR YOUR COMPANY?
Zebra Strategies came from a place while I was in the advertising industry. I felt that people were just not aware of things outside of their race or comfort zone. And I thought that I could offer a guide or ability to navigate those issues. I've been finding more and more is that once we get into this really really multicultural society where people have different interests that's not necessarily race or ethnicity based, the need to have an understanding has become more and more apparent. When you look at Paula Deen, when you look at Mountain Dew, when you look at Mary J. Blige with Burger King singing about chicken...this is stuff in my practice that I see, I try to divert my clients from being put in that position.
SO YOU'RE FINDING LACK OF AWARENESS WITH ALL GROUPS?
No...I think by nature of who we are as African Americans, Africans, as African Caribbeans, we always have to be aware of other people's values and issues. We know about golfing, we know about tennis, we know about American food. We know about different ethnicities. We know a little bit about Hispanics, we know about Indians. But I don't find that same level of interest reciprocated. When I look at some clients and when I deal with advertising agencies, you get some surface stuff. But to me, some of the things we deal with are basic. If I'm talking to a client and they're telling me, "oh we want to do some research. Why are there Hispanics in here that are not white?" And for them not to figure out how ignorant that sounds...something's missing here.
I was talking to some white colleagues of mine about people being curious, and she said "maybe these people don't have access to be curious." So my question is, what are the challenges that make access? We have to learn how to create access to what's important to us and what's important to our culture. But then what happens is that they don't do it, so there's always a divide. There's always some secret conversation going on.
SO WHAT KIND OF SETTING IS IDEAL FOR THESE OPEN DISCUSSIONS TO OCCUR?
If there are people around you that are not the same ethnicity of you, I think you can just have a conversation. Maybe it means saying something as simple as wanting to learn more about their culture. I'll read specific novelists, eating at an ethnic restaurant...just being curious about something outside of yourself. And I think that's at least a start.
HOW DO DIFFERENT ETHNIC GROUPS RESPOND TO CERTAIN CAMPAIGNS? WHAT'S A PRIORITY IN TERMS OF WHAT THESE DIFFERENT GROUPS WOULD LIKE TO SEE WHEN THEY'RE BEING MARKETED TO?
I think African Americans are more culturally and racially sensitive. I think there are more nuances obviously around race. But also around socioeconomic issues. I had a client that asked me to talk to a lower-income African-American black population about what they thought poverty was. And many of them took offense to that. Because to them, poverty is not about richness in money. It's sort of about richness in experience. I tend to find...when we look at other ethnicities, there is more sensitivity, but not as much as it is with African Americans.
DO YOU THINK IT'S A TRUST THING? LIKE AFRICAN AMERICANS ARE A LITTLE BIT MORE LEARY OF MARKETING?
I think so. I think generally race impacts everything. We know if we go into Bloomingdales, we're going to be followed around. It makes us sort of sensitive generally. When you're in an environment where people are looking at the color of your skin, you know you're going to be a little nervous and a little sensitive. That's just the way it goes.
IS THE SENSITIVITY GENDER SPECIFIC? DOES IT SKEW MORE TOWARDS BLACK MEN OR BLACK WOMEN?
I think African American women tend to have a little bit more sensitivity in how they are portrayed in the media.
DO YOU THINK ADVERTISING TO MINORITIES IMPACTS OTHER AREAS OF MINORITY-FOCUSED MEDIA?
I've done research with beauty clients that are trying to work with African American women. And when they talk about the fact that they don't see positive images of themselves in the media...that's kind of powerful. We know what we see on reality TV, but other than Michelle Obama, what's really representing us in a way that we can feel good about?
When we look at traditional advertising to African American women, around hair, makeup and beauty, we still don't see people of different hues. Now we're starting to see different hair textures, but when we look at some of the ads...some commercials have African American women in them and their hair isn't styled properly. There needs to be some kind of effort made. So I think when we look at the images of black women in media, and we look at black women in advertising in general, I think that there's some interesting connections there. Especially around beauty.
WHEN YOU HAVE THESE SESSIONS WHERE BLACK WOMEN OR OTHER MINORITY GROUPS WERE GIVING FEEDBACK, WAS THERE A PUSH FOR A SPECIFIC TYPE OF AD?
I think black people want to be reflected positively. I don't think that's a big deal. When they see an ad, they want to feel good about it. And I think that when they watch television, they want to feel good about it. They don't want to be embarrassed. They don't want to say "my goodness, all these girls do is fight on TV". Or...they don't want to see Mary J. Blige singing about chicken. We're already sensitive when we're looking at things revolving around racial stereotypes. And it's become even more heightened when you have the tea party reinforcing racial stereotypes from 50-60 years ago. They want to be represented in a way where they can feel pride. For me personally, I don't want to see ads that involve music and dancing. There must be a different way to communicate with us.
ADVERTISERS MAKE ASSUMPTIONS THAT THAT'S THE ONLY TYPE OF AD THAT THEY SEE RESULTS FROM? WHEREAS YOU HAVE RESEARCH THAT PROVES OTHERWISE?
Kind of. When a client hires you, you can't say something like 'why did you come up with something that's so profoundly stupid?' Because I would get fired.
I did some testing for a liquor product that is very popular among black people. And I thought the ad was ridiculous. Why? Because of course the black guy was pop locking in the ad. And it's like 'come on, what do you we have here? Modern Step and Fetch?" We tested the ad, and one of the guys described the ad as "coonery". When you describe something as coonery, that's horrible. And you know...no one in the room caught that? Yes, I was the only black person in the back room and no one caught it. Coonery is not a word that everyone would know. But if someone is using a word to describe something you're presenting, and it's a word that you don't know...wouldn't you at least write that word down and figure out what it is?" I don't know what the answer is. In my mind, is that they just don't connect? Or that they just don't pay attention? Or that they just don't care? Or they just don't know? I don't know.
But what happens is, in not asking those questions, in not following up, in not trying to learn something outside of their comfort zone, you see stuff like the Mountain Dew ad with Tyler the creator. That's an example of people being clueless.
IN TERMS OF THE LACK OF RACIAL AND ETHNIC SENSITIVITY THAT YOU DISCUSSED, WHO DO YOU THINK HAS THE BIGGER RESPONSIBILITY? IS IT THE CUSTOMERS THAT SHOULD MOBILIZE AND BE MORE VOCAL, OR IS IT THE MARKETERS THAT SHOULD BE MORE THOROUGH?
I would say that the onus is really on the marketers. Why shouldn't you be a more evolved person? Why shouldn't you learn about something outside of what you're more comfortable with? It makes you a citizen of the world, it allows you to converse in different environments. And to me, nothing is more affirming that to have someone to tell you something about your culture, your ethnicity, your race that makes you feel like, "oh my gosh! They understand me."
Now it's becoming an economic issue because mistakes are happening, things are happening. If Paula Deen could reverse the hands of time, she would've been in there, doing her diversity work, understanding the cultural sensitivities of some of the things she's doing, because it cost her a lot of a money. And that's the bottom line. It's become an economic thing now.
THE TELEVISION AND FILM INDUSTRY ARE APPARENTLY DISCOVERING THIS LARGE BLACK AUDIENCE THAT'S BEEN IGNORED FOR THE MOST PART. TELEVISION AND MARKETING GO HAND IN HAND. HAS THERE BEEN A SURGE IN INTEREST TO MARKET TO DIVERSE GROUPS?
I think there's definitely been a large focus, but it's been to the Hispanic market. It's the fastest growing population. I think there's generally a thought that "we can get to the African American market through general market stuff", which you can to some extent--but there are times in categories such as health and beauty where you have to kind of target directly to them.
CAN YOU TELL ME THINGS THAT LATINOS RESPOND TO IN THE HISPANIC/LATINO MARKET?
When I first started my business, I would get requests like, "oh we just want you to get a Hispanic group together. Give us two Hispanics." Now, it's become more specific. They want Puerto Rican, Dominican, we want Spanish dominant, English dominant. Within the Hispanic community, there are a lot of sub sections. And finally, we're getting some attention for ethnic Hispanics--which includes black Hispanic. I think the Hispanic community is trying to figure that out now. And because they're trying to understand how that works, race has an interesting hierarchy. As an outsider, that's a loaded issue. In Puerto Rico alone, there are about 20 different names for people of different hues. Many Dominicans will say that they're Native American instead of black. When I look at Hispanic programming, I watch and wonder, "where are the brown people?" I think it'll be interesting to see how advertisers navigate that stuff because the whole idea of race is so loaded. Even if you put a brown skinned person in a Spanish-speaking ad, a brown-skinned person might not appreciate it because they're told that their complexion is bad and their hair is bad.
I RECENTLY SAW A BANANA REPUBLIC AD WHERE A BLACK GUY AND A WHITE GIRL WERE WALKING HOLDING HANDS AND I WAS SURPRISED BECAUSE I NORMALLY DON'T SEE THAT IN MARKETING. DO YOU THINK COMPANIES ARE WILLING TO COMBINE RACES WHEN MARKETING SOCIAL ASPECTS OF PEOPLE'S LIVES?
Sure, definitely. There was a Cheerios commercial. And you see a little girl that asks her mother a question, then the mother says "go to your father" and the father was black. It was interesting to see. There's all of these racist, ridiculous responses to the ad on Youtube. People were going crazy. I think Cheerios took a big chance in doing that. There might be people that say, "I'll never buy Cheerios again" because they had a multiracial couple on screen. We know that there are people trying to hold back this whole multicultural movement that's happening. I think the reaction to the Cheerios ad definitely demonstrates that. If you look at stats, there's info stating that 40 percent of the population is going to be multiracial within this century.
In regards to Banana Republic, they are definitely a more cosmopolitan brand. So obviously they won't get the same kind of reaction that Cheerios is going to have. Even though they sent out a nice press release, there's someone in that marketing department that probably had some concerns about the controversy the ad was going to create. Who wants to deal with that? There's a tug and a pull of being culturally appropriate vs. reflecting this country's changing demographics and not getting into a racial or ethnic debate. The train is going. You can either get on or off the train. People of different races are building bridges in understanding each other.
WHAT WOULD BE AN IDEAL ADVERTISING LANDSCAPE FOR YOU?
I'm always excited when people are curious about things outside of their comfort zone, so I would say...for me, it would be marketers and advertising agencies that made a real effort to learn something about different cultures, different people's experiences, and to do so without judgment.