Young Mr. Gray, of Blackfeet and Chippewa-Cree lineage, has dared assert that Native Americans have a place in advertising, not merely as the befeathered cliches depicted in baseball and the butter trade, but as object and source. His G&G Advertising, originally called Gray & Gray, appears to be the only full-service ad agency in the U.S. devoted to marketing to Native Americans. And to correcting centuries of stereotyping thereof.
"The Indian is always portrayed as an historical figure, not as if we're alive today," the 31-year-old Mr. Gray told me the other day. "Land O'Lakes Butter, Mohawk Paper, even Iron Eyes Cody in that famous anti-littering public-service ad, they're all what I term stick-a-feather-in-it-and-call-it-an-Indian imagery. It's not intended to be racist. But it doesn't deal with how we are."
What Indians are is a market. According to Mr. Gray, there are more than 500 federally recognized tribes, plus another 200 tribes accepted by specific states -- their enrollments ranging from perhaps a score to more than 300,000 people, for a total of some 10 million Americans of native descent. Their governments, businesses and residents spend almost $9 billion off their reservations. Casino gambling in Indian country has grown into a separate $4.8 billion business -- with an enormous and growing impact on neighboring regional economies. It's time, says Mr. Gray, to take this special market especially seriously. "Much of that means showing Indian people as we are today, but it also means understanding our tradition and history and how it remains a big part of our lives."
That can be tricky because there is no single tradition on which marketers might draw. Some tribes have matriarchal cultures; others are led resolutely by men. Some, like Connecticut's casino-owning Pequots, have become wildly wealthy. Others, like the Navajos, the largest tribe, still depend on a great deal of federal assistance.
"You have to find the commonalities," Mr. Gray says, "but if you want to go deep, you have to consider segmenting."
Even Mr. Gray was unaware of the demographic differences until he moved from his native Montana to the Southwest.
"Up north, a lot of tribes have been moved around and put on reservations at the government's instigation; that means there's a history of assimilation," he told me. "And today, you're almost forced to assimilate because the location means you have to leave the reservation to go to border towns to work. But here in the Southwest, in some pueblos, Indians have been living in the same spot for 500 years."
Mr. Gray also believes that communications aimed at Native Americans should seek to educate both the target market and the broader population, thus generating a level of consumer involvement that is rare in advertising. In a spot G&G is currently developing for the U.S. Census Bureau -- the agency was recruited by Young & Rubicam to handle the Native American portion of the campaign for next year's national census -- a pow-wow features prominently.
"We're making sure the pow-wow arbor is facing east, and we're differentiating between jingle-dressed dancers and shawl dancers," Mr. Gray explained. "Will it come off as stereotypical to non-Indians? I don't know. But we're trying to give the larger market something where they can say, 'Wow! I didn't know they did that.' "
Michael Gray's crusade began about eight years ago when he was directing marketing for the Institute of American Indian Arts, the only one of the 31 tribal colleges dedicated solely to the arts. While there, he met David Kennedy, the co-founder of Wieden & Kennedy, who for years guided the Portland, Ore., agency's pro bono work for the American Indian College Fund. When Mr. Gray told him he was interested in getting into advertising "to get rid of the myth," Mr. Kennedy encouraged him, saying, "There's a lot of minority advertising out there, but I've never heard of a Native American agency."
The Wieden connection has helped; Mr. Gray says he was able to prove himself worthy of the U.S. Census account by persuading Joe Pytka, a Wieden stalwart, to lend a directorial hand.
It was after the census victory that he received a letter from Grey Advertising threatening legal action unless he lopped his own name from his agency's letterhead. Michael Gray complied. After all, he'd already won the battle for recognition.