Cracking the Code on Coded Language

Media's Use of Ambiguous Labels Can Quickly Alienate Voters, Consumers

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Pepper Miller Pepper Miller
The drumming of the phrase "hardworking Americans" over and over by the media and Sen. Clinton's campaign has worked my nerves. While we all know the label "hardworking Americans" is not exclusive to any one population segment, it's upsetting to many ethnic consumers (including myself) that this has been perceived as coded language for "white working class." Yet for weeks the media passed the same vague phrase from one source to another, until Sen. Clinton finally identified the segment as we had been interpreting it all along: "hardworking Americans, white Americans..."

One could argue that perceptions of the use of coded language range from accidental slips to downright secrecy.

Given African-Americans' history of slavery, post-slavery and discrimination, there is a particular sensitivity within the black community when it is the subject of coded language. Buzz from the black blogosphere and radio circuit revealed Sen. Clinton's "hardworking Americans" comment made many in the black community feel disconnected and invisible. (Blogger Moses Foster responded to the invisibility issue in his post from May 19: "Guess What, America? There Is a Black Middle Class.")

As another example, WVON-AM Chicago talk-show host Perri Small nailed the rationale for black frustration over charges of Sen. Obama's "elitist" attitude during an appearance on CNN last month. Ms. Small explained that many in the black community took "elitist" to mean "uppity," a particularly troublesome translation as the term "uppity" dates back to pre-Civil Rights and the Jim Crow era. Despite progress in the black community, "uppity" continues to be perceived as code for blacks who do not "stay their place."

Politicians and journalists aren't the only players in the code game. In 2005, Akademiks, a group of young African-American fashion manufacturers, developed a racy urban campaign based on coded street language: "Read Books. Get Brain."

"Get Brain" is street language for oral sex. Akademiks' strategy was to justify the importance of reading books to black youth while maintaining a cool, in-the-know brand image. The black community quickly retaliated, and the ad was pulled.

And let's not forget "keepin' it real," the auspicious self-empowerment message created by hip-hop Gen Xers that is instead often used to justify shamelessly bold and brutally honest behavior.

Coded language should not be confused with euphemisms, politically correct language or double-entendres. It is none of these; rather, it is designed and employed to maintain ambiguity, while frequently carrying a subtle, sinister connotation. The examples I've highlighted show how intentions of ambiguity can backfire if voters and consumers become insulted or offended. And that's the last thing marketers want, especially when developing communications ties with ethnic audiences.
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