Monday, March 02, 2009

Advertisers still don't "get" multiculturalism

According to this article, "multiculturalism" has become the latest, hottest trend in the advertising industry. 

Whites and blacks are shown returning from war, surfing, skateboarding, dancing and waving American flags at political rallies, while a boyish Dylan and a present-day will.i.am take turns singing the Dylan classic, "Forever Young," each in his signature style. ...

Ads like these are part of a subtle, yet increasingly visible strategy that marketers refer to as "visual diversity" — commercials that enable advertisers to connect with wider audiences while conveying a message that corporate America is not just "in touch," racially speaking, but inclusive.

It wasn't always like this. For much of the past century, "minorities were either invisible in mainstream media, or handed negative roles that generally had them in a subservient position," says Jerome Williams, a professor of advertising and African-American studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Today, you're starting to see a juxtaposition of blacks and whites together, doing the things people do ... 

From my Canadian vantage point, it looks like someone in the advertising industry south of the border has finally realized that "multiculturalism" is more lucrative than the "melting pot." But if you look closely, you will notice that what is labelled "multicultural" is in essence "multi-racial."

These "multiculti" ads may be evidence of the vitality of assimilation, America's distinctive, master trend. To advertisers, though, they're simply smart business — a recognition of a new cultural mainstream that prizes diversity, a recognition that we are fast approaching a day when the predominant hue in America will no longer be white.

"Going forward, all advertising is going to be multicultural by definition, because in most states, majority ethnic populations will no longer exist," says Danny Allen, managing director at SENSIS, an ad agency in Los Angeles that specializes in reaching multicultural audiences through digital and online media.

This tendency to define multiculturalism strictly in terms of race has been going on a long time, and it has bugged me just as long.  Obviously I do not have anything against multi-racialism. But when is our society going to become sophisticated, confident, and caring enough to start correctly identifying a spade as a spade and a shovel as a shovel? There is a lot more to multiculturalism than skin colour.

Such ads often depict, [says Karl Carter, chief executive of the marketing agency GTM Inc. (Guerrilla Tactics Media)] "a bunch of different races playing along, side by side, Kumbaya."

The ads may play well now, but Carter wonders how long they will be effective — particularly as America "beiges" and race becomes less essential to how individuals self-identify. Over the long run, advertisers would do better, he says, to focus on a cultural approach with versatile images and campaigns easily adapted to highly individualized tastes. Put another way: How do hip-hoppers feel? What are the common desires of surfers, or skateboarders, or kayakers?

Add to that list, people who are interested in their ethnic heritage culture(s)... While it’s encouraging that some marketers are finally starting to think in these terms, I'm frankly quite amazed that it is taking so long for the majority to catch on.

As well, there still are precious few companies interested in catering to people interested in their ethnic heritage cultures. There are a few that do it on a superficial level, such as companies that sell language instruction courses. But they seem to be in a time warp. Rosetta Stone doesn’t even offer Ukrainian. Pimsleur does but the course is so outdated and laden with soviet propaganda it is laughable and hard to take seriously. BeforeYouKnowIt offers just a basic course and based on my email discussion with a company representative, isn’t interested in offering anything more.

Apparently these companies don’t consider the 2+ million North Americans of Ukrainian descent, the majority of whom have lost the language, a lucrative enough market.

Perhaps with the current economic downturn they may change their attitude.

Shreffler, the ad industry newsletter editor, says marketers aren't sociologists and in the end green — not black or white or brown — is often the most important color.

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