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White Space, White Noise
America’s more diverse than ever. So why isn’t the ad industry?
By: Hadji Williams
After 15 years as a copywriter I’ve noticed 3 perennial constants: (1) An increasing number of failing ad campaigns and marketing strategies accompanied by a growing number of confused and frustrated clients, colleagues, and ad critics bemoaning the increasing clutter, groupthink and cookie-cutter strategies. (2) The ever-increasing cultural and ethnic diversity in American society. (3) The still mind-numbingly lack of ethnic and cultural diversity within the ad industry.
Now here’s a shot in the dark: Has it ever cross anyone’s mind that a major reason so many marketers still struggle to our diversifying consumer base is because we’re less and less like them than ever before?
We talk a lot about how media savvy consumers have become but we sidestep the obvious fact that they’ve also gotten Blacker more Mexican more Puerto Rican more Chinese more Korean more Ethiopian more Columbian more Jamaican, etc. And with this have come more definitions of what’s cool what’s sexy what’s beautiful what’s relevant what’s heartwarming what’s human and more importantly, what ideas can and should build a brand.
But sadly, as Black creative I can tell you that even in 2006 the advertising industry’s idea of diversity remains blondes, brunettes, redheads plus openly gay versions thereof. In fact, when I freelance in general market shops, I’m usually the only black person around. (Sans secretaries, of course.) In fact, according to industry estimates, general market shops remain well over 95% Caucasian, much higher depending on the market. And it’s precisely this continued whitewash that’s hurting our ability to connect our clients’ brands with an increasingly diverse marketplace.
Again, how do you "think out of the box" when you’ve hired nothing but boxes?
To remix John Edwards, there’s a different America out there: They never loved ‘Raymond.’ They never got the appeal of Friends, Seinfeld, or Sex And The City. They still don’t get SNL, Two and a Half Men or World According to Jim. Their musical tastes aren’t shaped by RollingStone, TRL or even BET. They don’t trust FOX. They don’t shop at Banana Republic or Gap. Their ideal female isn’t in the pages of Cosmo or Playboy. (And quiet as kept, they dismiss Dove’s "real women" as an attempt to capitalize on the zeitgeist of white women’s insecurities despite being propped as the standard of feminine beauty since Day One.) This America rarely golfs and will never ever drive 500 miles in a circle, much less watch others do it.
(By the way: this America is not white.)
For example: By 2010, Black consumers will be spending an estimated $920 billion annually, with Latinos well over their current $1 trillion, and Asians spending some $526 billion. That’ll be a combined $2.8 trillion plus a year being spent by just these three American consumer groups alone; groups who have also consistently proven themselves over the generations to be our leading trendsetters in music, fashion, art, style, entertainment and business. And make no mistake, these and other non-Anglo ethnic groups are growing in number, influence and identity. And by 2040, possibly sooner, the US Census Bureau expects there to be as many as 400 million Americans with 50% of them being non-Caucasian.
Now how can an ad community whose diversity reflects Will & Grace on its best day simply "research" its way into this America’s heart or pocketbook? I guess we can rely on so-called universal truths, provided this America realizes that "universal truth" means what’s true for the general market (whites) must be universally true for them, too.
In 2005 marketers spent $245 billion but less than 4% (an all-time high, no less) went to multicultural agencies and media outlets. Now it’s just a matter of time before ethnic professionals combine and realize that GM shops and holding companies are more barriers than bridges. Once they do, they’ll stop begging for slices of the pie and start baking their own. Then they’ll reach everyone the GM shops ignored, offended or just bored to tears. And eventually GM clients will follow because love (of money) conquers all.
And ultimately Generic Market shops will be left to do what we’ve done for the last 80 years—make excuses for our institutionalized bias and exclusion. Because at the end of the day, the only thing more obvious than our problem is the solution. And our refusal to be a part of the solution.
Hadji Williams is also author of KNOCK THE HUSTLE: How to save Your Job and Your Life from Corporate America (November 2006) (www.knockthehustle.com / firstname.lastname@example.org)