Reality Free TV
By David Morse, President & CEO, New American Dimensions, LLC
Have some advertisers gone too far in presenting a vision of America as a multicultural rainbow that is a far cry from reality? Maybe so, says a recent article by AP writer Erin Texeira.
The article discusses a growing trend among marketers to present people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds side by side, blissfully ignorant of their differences, “bonded by a love of yogurt, lipstick and athletic gear.” The ads allow marketers to simultaneously target multiple ethnicities, demonstrate a commitment to diversity and show hip consumers that they are multiculturally savvy.
Texeira gives examples. During the Super Bowl, Anheuser Busch ran nine commercials that included every major racial group, including a spot with Cedric the Entertainer where every scene had actors representing at least two ethnic groups — many with four. Verizon has been running a “sitcom-like” campaign with three families: one black, one Latino and one with a Latina mom and a White dad. A Yoplait ad features a multiracial group of girlfriends sensuously devouring a serving of yogurt: “This is day-at-the-spa good. This is a weekend-with-no-boys-good.”
These ads present us with an optimistic, idealized picture of co-existence, a representation of how we’d like to see ourselves, a snapshot of where we seem to be headed as a society. So what’s wrong with that?
The problem, according to many sociologists, is that these images are distortions of the actual racial climate of the country. They give us a false sense of integration, allowing us to blissfully ignore the fact that we remain a very segregated society.
According to Charles Gallagher, a sociologist at Georgia State University in Atlanta, these ads are creating a “carefully manufactured racial utopia, a narrative of colorblindness. The lens through which people learn about other races is absolutely through TV, not through human interaction and contact.” He adds that the commercials make it seem like race doesn’t matter when, in fact, it does.
Moderator’s Comment: Are multicultural ads a sure bet for savvy marketers? Could they ever backfire on well-intentioned companies? Can there be anything
wrong with showing us as we’d like to see ourselves?
I suppose it could be said I’m a multiculturalist. Having grown up in an era when white people were all I saw on television and in the movies, I like the
fact that Americans of all races are coming together like never before. But we are far from being an integrated society, despite what we see on television. Blacks and whites,
for instance, still mostly live in different neighborhoods, go to different churches, consume different media and rarely marry each other. And as we saw during the OJ Simpson
trial, we often think very differently as well.
We interpret advertising differently, and multicultural ads, though aspirational and appealing, can be risky without a keen multicultural perspective.
In 1989, United Colors of Benetton ran a deliberately controversial and provocative ad showing a black woman breastfeeding a white baby. The intent: tease
American puritanical sensibilities. The result: it caused an uproar among African Americans for evoking images of slavery.
Other examples include a 1997 Walgreens flyer distributed during Black History Month for a skin lightening cream, and a 1999 Toyota Corolla ad run in Jet
magazine with the claim, “Unlike your last boyfriend, it goes to work in the morning.”
Multicultural ads, when done with cultural understanding, can sell product, even inspire. When they blunder or seem inauthentic, they can backfire. Hiring
a good ethnic agency on the front end can prevent hiring a PR agency later for damage control. –
David Morse – Moderator