When Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, won this year's Miss America competition on ABC, she became the first Indian-American to receive the crown. She was one of two Asian Americans in the final round, and one of three in the top five. Coming in a pageant that once required contestants to "be of good health and of the white race," this was a victory for diversity in the United States.
It's also a tale with a lesson for marketing, the moral being that it is more possible than some might think to both embrace change and maintain the best of your brand's traditional values.
Davuluri described herself as the girl next door, and added, "But the girl next door is evolving as the diversity in America evolves."
Any illusion of a post-racial America was quickly shattered, however, when a torrent of racist tweets hit the social media. She was called an "Arab," a "terrorist," "Miss 7-11" and a "nice slap in the face to the people of 9-11." A media frenzy erupted. Steven Colbert quipped, "I, for one, condemn this twitter backlash as pure xenophobic, reactionary hate speech. Which would be completely okay if she were an Arab. But she's not."
Still, the pageant, which was founded by the Businessmen's League of Atlantic City as a marketing tool to keep tourists on the boardwalk past Labor Day, is reaping the benefits worldwide. "We have had more media and appearance requests [particularly from India] than for any other Miss America ever," the pageant's marketing coordinator, Erica Fiocco, was quoted as saying.
Miss America's core values have "barely changed since the first pageant almost 90 years ago," PR pro Desiree Simone wrote. "However, Miss America has looked at the new social media age and embraced it with open arms."
"If the pageant continues to grow in this manner, you can expect more social media interaction, larger corporate sponsors, and more women eager to wear the crown and be the face that represents Miss America," Simone predicted.
We can debate how much or what kind of social progress this particular crowning represents.
As if she were an authority on all Asian Americans, Davuluri was asked during the pageant what she thought about CBS newscaster Julie Chen's disclosure that she had had eyelid surgery. She gave the right answer: "Be confident in who you are." This led Alexander Abad Santos to note in the Atlantic Wire: "I wasn't entirely convinced that a woman discussing plastic surgery in a competition where she is scored on what she looks like in a swimsuit was an actual turning point in the way Asian people and our looks are discussed."
Comedian Craig Ferguson put it ironically: "A lot of people say having an Indian-American as Miss America is a sign of progress," he said. "I think it is. We should pat ourselves on the back for objectifying women without regard to ethnicity."
The Indian view is report ed to be more sympathetic.. As Lakshmi Chaudhry writes, "Many Indian Americans felt her victory offered vindication in a culture that prizes hot blondes as the exemplar of all-American beauty."
There's no doubt that the pools of those who dream of wearing the Miss America crown now will be more diverse than ever. Reveling in their personal cultural and racial heritage, many more women can aspire to be the symbol of the values that this pageant has championed for decades.
For marketers the message is clear. Maintain your core values. It would go against the pageant's self-interest to try to change its essentially traditional outlook. (Imagine the pageant having any success with no swimsuit competition.) But do it by showing Americans as we really are. Diverse. The pageant stuck to its guns and has been well rewarded.