By Published on .

Cynthia Morris is a family woman who has an MBA degree and an executive-level job. By day, she raises funds for national parks programs. By night, the 50-year old, married African American mother of two writes checks for such things as the tuition for one of her sons' college education and the renovations on the family's 3,500-square-foot house in Potomac, Md. Still, as the chief decision maker in her upper-middle-class household, Morris believes that, to marketers, she is out of sight and out of mind. “It's like a blind spot,� she says. “People just don't see us as this influential segment that can make a difference in their market share.�

Count Morris among the 13 million African American women, 18 and older, who register as a mere blip on the average marketer's radar. Marketers pay scant attention to this consumer segment, despite how fast the population of African American women is growing and the extent to which its spending power is increasing. The Census Bureau projects that the number of black women will grow twice as fast as the total population, surging 8 percent, to 14.2 million, in the next five years, compared with a 4 percent rate of growth for the general population. And in a 2002 report, New York City-based market researcher Packaged Facts projected that the spending power of African American women would increase by 32 percent, to $342 billion, in 2006, up from $259 billion in 2001. By contrast, the total population's spending power is projected to grow by 24 percent by 2006.

Here's the predicament. African American women account for 6.5 percent of the population in the United States and wield less economic clout than women overall. Significantly, however, black women set fashion trends and are prime consumers of many products and services. They overindex on certain media, making up 7 percent of prime-time TV viewers, 7 percent of all magazine readers and 8 percent of evening and late-night radio listeners (from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m.). And as key decision makers in their households, black women exert disproportionately greater influence in spending on a number of big-ticket budget items, including houses and cars.

But you would hardly know it, given the way advertisers treat black women. Less than 1 percent of total ad spending targets them, although they represented 3.3 percent of the $7.6 trillion in total buying power in the U.S. in 2002. If marketers had allocated a commensurate percentage on advertising that targeted the black woman, they would have spent $7.8 billion last year, $5.5 billion more than they did.

Advertiser reluctance to market aggressively to these consumers stems from a mix of fear and ignorance. “The fact is, marketers do not respect this audience,� claims Darryl Mobley, publisher of Family Digest, a women's service magazine that focuses on African American families. Marketers tell him they value black women, but they have also expressed concerns about white backlash if someone black is cast in an ad. “A lot of folks use any excuse whatsoever to avoid marketing to this audience,� Mobley says.

Even companies that do target advertising to African Americans hold back. Their discrete ethnic marketing budgets are often too small to have an impact, according to Barbara Britton, vice president and associate publisher of sales for Essence magazine. “We certainly face challenges,� she says.

Part of the problem is that people still picture African American women as single mothers on welfare, according to Larry Woodard, president and CEO of Vigilante, a New York City-based advertising agency that specializes in the urban market. There is some truth to the claim that black women have below-average spending power. Their individual earned income averages $26,220, compared with $29,440 for all women 18 and older, reports Mediamark Research, Inc. And their average household income of $38,550 is 43 percent lower than the figure of $55,100 for all women.

Attribute much of the disparity to family structure: Black women are less likely than average to be part of a married couple. Therefore, the single income they often rely on — their own — has to go far. And in our society, they face additional hurdles. Both blacks and women are underrepresented in high income brackets. Further, because African American women are more likely to find employment in low-paying service occupations than their white peers, they are frequently at a financial disadvantage.

What marketing executives don't grasp is that African American women represent a very dynamic market. They are upwardly mobile, making gains in education and income. Almost half of black women have attended college (46 percent). The share of those who had attended college for four or more years increased to 17 percent in 2000, up from 4 percent in 1960. (As higher education relates to gender, more black women than black men, 25 and older, have earned at least a bachelor's degree.) Black women are somewhat more likely than white women to work (62 percent versus 60 percent), and 1 in 4 of those who are employed hold managerial or professional jobs. The median income of black women has grown at a faster rate during the past two decades than that of women overall.


Paying attention to African American women can give marketers a foothold into the broader African American population. According to projections from the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth, African Americans' disposable personal income will grow by a third in the next several years, increasing from $646 billion in 2002 to $853 billion by 2007.

African American women are powerful consumers. More often than not, a black woman controls how the money in her household is spent. A 2002 Harris Interactive Poll reveals that black women are more likely to say they are independent-minded than are white women. Their autonomy is reflected in a greater propensity than their white counterparts to make the buying decisions in their households. Six in 10 make major purchasing decisions, such as buying a house, compared with 4 in 10 Caucasian women. A significant majority of black women — 62 percent — decide which financial services to use and what investments to make, versus 51 percent of white women. The survey, commissioned by Essence Communications Partners, was based on telephone interviews with 1,000 African American women and 500 Caucasian women, all 18 or older.

Even in households headed by a married couple, African American women are more likely to control the purse strings than Caucasian women. For example, 1 in 2 married black women are the primary decision maker in buying a house, versus 1 in 4 married white women. Two-thirds of married black women choose which health-care plan to carry, compared with just one-half of married white women. A similar pattern holds for automobiles, computers and home electronics. And a black woman is not afraid to take charge of tasks regarded as traditionally “male.� She's more likely than the average woman to have had her car transmission serviced or her tires checked in the prior year.

The position black women assume in their households goes a long way toward explaining their consumer behavior. A large percentage of African American women are the sole breadwinner for their family. In nearly half (46 percent) of households, black women reign as head of household, according to the Census Bureau; white women occupy the same position in one-quarter of white, non-Hispanic households. The share of family households headed by black women is more than three times that of family households headed by white women (30 percent versus 9 percent). According to MRI, some 61 percent of black women say they head up their household, compared with just 45 percent of white women. The shares include women who take the lead in families headed by a married couple.


African American women are more active than average consumers in many sectors. They place high priority on defining their personal style. These women are twice as likely to buy tooth polish, perfume and hair-growth products than the average consumer, and they're more than four times as likely than average to buy a home permanent kit. Family orientation factors in to higher-than-average consumption of certain products and services. Black women index high in buying baby food, teething remedies and baby oil. Other items black women buy more of than average include household cleaning products, frozen French toast and deviled ham. Beyond packaged goods, these women also score above the norm in purchasing footwear, children's apparel and home electronics. “Any companies with products in those categories are missing a huge opportunity if they're not talking to this woman,� says Camellia Ware, media supervisor at Tapestry, the multicultural division of Starcom MediaVest Group, a subsidiary of Paris-based Publicis Groupe.

African American women want and expect a better life, a sentiment that translates into a different buying mentality from the mainstream. When they really want an item, cost is no object, say 49 percent of black women but only 41 percent of white women. African American women are also highly attentive to brands. “For many, living well is expressed through buying high-end brands,� says Howard Buford, president and CEO of Prime Access, a New York City-based agency.

TV, radio and magazines are good vehicles for reaching black women, because this is a segment whose media consumption is high. African American women read an average of 16.5 magazines per month, one-third more than the average of 12.2 issues women in general browse through. When they're not immersed in bridal, fashion and baby magazines, black women are avid television watchers. They are more likely than average to own four or more TVs, and they watch an average of 8 more hours per week than the average woman (37.4 versus 29.4 hours). Black women spend more than half of their viewing hours watching pay TV or programs on cable channels, particularly on BET, the Home Shopping Network and Court TV. They are also more tuned in to radio, listening some 22.6 hours per week, and often turn their dials to black gospel and urban contemporary stations.

Among media options, marketers should consider traditional black magazines to anchor any plan to reach black women, says Sharmain Davis, media director at Prime Access. She gives those titles high marks for strong coverage of the market and for their readership demographics. Targeted media that speaks directly to black women, Davis finds, connects more powerfully. “Running an ad in targeted media gives added credibility to the advertiser,� she says. For massive reach and a quick introduction to a product, she says that network TV or the general market is good but that those buys don't rate high in cost efficiency.

Advertising messages should genuinely reflect the diversity of the African American community, stresses Dan Murphy, vice president of Multicultural Diagnostic Research at Insights Marketing Group, a Miami-based consumer research firm. “We're not all in the ghetto,� he says. Advertising creative tends to be overwhelmingly northern and urban in its sensibility and appeal, notes Family Digest's Mobley, although the majority of blacks live in the South and almost half (48.5 percent) live in suburban or nonmetro areas.

“Generally speaking, African American women want to know that brands welcome them,� says Prime Access's Buford. An advertiser can show an understanding of black women by creating a message that recognizes and reinforces her decision-making power, Tapestry's Ware maintains. A TV spot created by Prime Access for Zocor, a drug that lowers cholesterol, succeeds on that level. The ad features an African American couple, but the focus is on the woman as caretaker; she does most of the talking about how they've built a life together. The spot first aired in spring 2002 and ran on cable and network TV. (A spokesman at Merck, which makes Zocor, declined to comment on the ad's effect on sales.)

Another way to appeal to a black woman is to “tweak her curiosity and help her see herself in your brand,� says Ware. A print ad campaign for Kraft's Honey Bunches of Oats cereal plays off an understanding of a black woman's personal needs and values. In a 2002 ad from the campaign, entitled “A moment with your honey,� the copy begins: “Take a breather. This moment is yours. Just you and your bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats.� Research had shown that African American women hid the box or didn't want to eat it when others were around, says Deborah Mackiewicz, senior brand manager for multicultural strategy at Kraft. By using the word “honey,� the company was trying to resonate with a culture that emphasizes human connections, explains Mackiewicz. The ad performed better than she and her colleagues had expected it would.

For marketers intent on building brands, neglecting black women is a mistake. The consumer segment is worth another, closer look. Says Ware: “It's truly an opportunity for the advertiser who wants to move the needle when it comes to sales on a number of products.�

In this article:
Most Popular