Reality Free TV

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Mar 16, 2005
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By David Morse, President & CEO, New American Dimensions, LLC

www.newamericandimensions.com


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

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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13 Comments on "Reality Free TV"


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David Livingston
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

Sometimes marketers go overboard. One of my favorites was a local university that had to transpose people of color into their brochures because there were none to be found on campus. It was well intentioned but very misleading.

Go visit a foreign country, such as one in Central or South America. See if you can find any diversity or multiculturalism in their advertisements. Instead of seeing diversified races of people, you only see one type – wealthily, beautiful people of Spanish decent.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 11 months ago

The long history of aspirational ads in the U.S., especially on TV, has been well documented as helping to create an unrealistic image of family life. Some charge that this unrealistic image is even responsible for much of the depression, low self-esteem, and dysfunctionality in families who somehow feel that everyone is living the perfect American life except themselves.

Unfortunately, for all those decades this type of advertising never pushed our personal “cowchip” buttons. We just continued to accept it as the truth.

Will this spate of unrealistically multicultural ads push our cowchip buttons? Perhaps. Advertisers should be applauded for celebrating life as it should be, but will they achieve their communication objectives if viewers see the ads as not credible?

Franklin Benson
Guest
Franklin Benson
15 years 11 months ago

Boy has the pendulum really swung the other way on this one. Back when I was in school (which wasn’t THAT long ago!), the politically correct movement was really growing and one of its central tenets was that big media didn’t show enough multiculturalism. Now the criticism is that there is too much? It boggles my mind…

Be careful what you ask for: If you ask for it long enough and loud enough, you’re going to get it.

Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

I’m fine with it, so long as it’s done with enough intelligence and research that it doesn’t backfire as shown in the examples. I mean, we don’t want squeaky clean white folk in all the ads, right? So if we’re going to put black and white and Hispanic people into the same TV spot, what are going to have them do–fight with each other? That’d be really smart. This “issue” is something dreamed up by people who always look for something to criticize or worry about.

Anna Murray
Guest
Anna Murray
15 years 11 months ago

In a week where Bernie Ebbers is front-page news, I find myself less concerned about companies’ multiculturalism, and more about how they treat their workers or whether their executives are raiding employees pensions.

But, I digress. Advertising is about creating fantasy. It’s meant to be. You key into some emotional chord in your audience that you feel will sell your product. I hate to be a cynic, but I wonder whether the multicultural focus of companies’ ads isn’t wasted effort. Given what we *know* about the way most people behave — living in all-white neighborhoods, making anti-female, anti-gay, anti-people-of-color statements & jokes — one has to wonder whether these multicultural rosy-colored images do anything more than strike the average American as corporate political correctness. I question whether an “ideal multicultural world” is part of most people’s fantasies at all.

Rick Moss
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

I remember reading of a psychology experiment in which subjects were instructed to curl the edges of their mouths slightly upward and hold the position for a period of time. When reporting their feelings at the conclusion of the test, participants indeed said they were happier than those who had been asked to scowl.

I believe advertisers have the right idea. Put a happy face on multicultural conditions long enough and maybe it will just start feeling right. Perhaps if management teams were composed using the same philosophy, companies would start performing better as well, sort of through osmosis.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 11 months ago
People who write commercials have always lived in cloud cuckoo land; or at least tried to make viewers believe that life is just a bowl of cherries. When have you ever seen a less than beautiful, less than immaculately groomed actor? When have you ever seen a less than perfectly behaved child or a family that isn’t sickeningly nice to each other? Only when the advertiser is making a point about how his product can achieve transformation. Our ideals of happy families come from commercials. Why should our colour blindness be any different? Dream on, I say. Commercials help us escape from the cynicism and lack of ethics and moral codes exemplified by our recent discussion about the messages sent to young people starting work for the first time by the managers and executives by whom they are employed. If everyone eating at McDonald’s looked like the actors on television, or everyone patting their tush in an Asda commercial felt as fulfilled in their job as the actors on television, what a wonderful world it… Read more »
Art Williams
Guest
Art Williams
15 years 11 months ago

I see no harm in presenting ads that represent the way it should be. This subtle “brainwashing” may over time do some good in helping breakdown prejudices. It, of course, protects the companies doing the ads from being charged as being discriminatory and, as long as they are tastefully done, should be a good thing. The only danger is if the ads become so patently or annoyingly obvious in this that they are considered a mockery. Some are very close to crossing that line.

Karen Kingsley
Guest
Karen Kingsley
15 years 11 months ago

Since when do the actors in ads represent reality?

No one I know is as consistently thin, pretty or as well-dressed as commercial actors when scouring their tubs or mopping their floors. At least multiculturalism is a reflection of an unreality I can live with, and even aspire to.

In fact, younger generations’ experience with multiculturalism is much greater than that of the people likely to be reading or writing on this site. One-third of teenagers are some sort of minority. So, particularly for those ads directed at a younger audience, they are a more accurate reflection of reality. In our current environment, honestly, if we’re going to misrepresent reality, I prefer a message that speaks to inclusion and harmony rather than exclusion.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

David’s right on his central point — multiculturalism is at least a double edged sword. Of course, advertisers have spent aggregate billions creating stereotypes of men, women, ethnic groups and lifestage, many of which were erroneous and offensive. What leads anyone to believe they’ll stop now?

David Morse
Guest
David Morse
15 years 11 months ago
I agree with most of the comments here that advertising needs to be aspirational. What I think is important to realize is that different cultures filter and interpret advertising differently. Most public opinion polls show that white Americans like the idea of diversity; it makes us feel good about ourselves and reinforces the idea that the oppressive racism of the past is over. It says that America is color-blind, a concept we like. Many African Americans get a completely different message from a multiracial ad. Yes, seeing themselves represented in advertising is a big leap from the complete exclusion of years past. But they don’t really see themselves — they see Black actors that don’t behave in any way, shape or form like real African Americans. In most commercials (or mainstream television shows), their ethnicity has been erased. And few would tell you that, in real life, their interactions with whites are really color-blind. My only point here is that, as marketers, we need to be aware how viewers are interpreting our messages. If you… Read more »
James Tenser
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

Of course commercials show an idealized reality. They always have, as far as I can recall. It’s just that fashion changes in what “idealized” means. In the 1960’s it meant all-white, Betty Crocker meets Father Knows Best. Today, it means a glorious rainbow of happy, attractive faces of many races. Neither is or was realistic.

Effective advertising, as the novelist William Gibson notes in his recent novel “Pattern Recognition,” appeals not to the cognitive part of the brain, but to its primitive limbic system. It’s about emotional – not intellectual – persuasion. If the fantasy of benign multiculturalism feels good to test audiences, then it behooves the advertiser to embed its product image within that fantasy. Does recognizing this make us more or less cynical? You decide.

Terry Soto
Guest
Terry Soto
15 years 11 months ago
I think that inclusiveness of diverse communities in mainstream advertising is smart – it recognizes this country’s diversity. And, more important to the consumers that watch it, it makes them feel like they belong, something to which many aspire – that is not to say that ethnic communities want to be like their mainstream counterparts, but they do want to be recognized by corporate America as significant contributors to the sales of their products and services. That said, there are advertising concepts by companies like Benetton, an Italian retailer which are intentionally controversial although one might argue if that is a function of the environment (i.e. The U.S. more conservative views) as I’m sure that Europeans are not as alarmed by these ads. If advertisers are incorporating ethnic groups in mainstream ads where cultural context is neutral and portrays ethnic consumers using/enjoying the product just like anybody else – I say it works – after all, for better or worse that is what advertising is meant to do. If, on the other hand, multicultural advertising… Read more »
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