Reclaiming Black Identity: Mainstream and Black Media Still Have Work to Do

And How Marketers Can Gain by Filling This Need

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Pepper Miller Pepper Miller
Kenneth and Mamie Clark, legendary African-American psychologists, conducted experiments in the 1940's using dolls -- one white, one black -- to gain insight on racial perspectives. They asked black children a variety of questions about the two dolls and learned a majority of the children -- 63% -- said they'd rather play with the white doll and, in fact, favored the white doll's beauty and indicated the white doll was the better doll overall (good vs. bad).

In 2006, Kira Davis, a then 17-year-old filmmaker, brought attention to the issue of racial identity and the Clarks' experiment, when she won the Diversity Award for her documentary "A Girl Like Me," at the sixth annual Media That Matters Film Festival. Davis recreated the Clarks' experiment and the results mirrored the Clarks' findings. Davis then used the insights as the framework for her documentary, which included interviews with her peers about race, skin color and identity.

"Good Morning America" recently re-created the doll test among African-American girls and boys aged 5 to 9 for one of its three-part series, "Black and White Now."

GMA's results were somewhat better than the previous experiments, yet, "the surprise," according to GMA, "was that a majority of African-American girls said the white doll was the prettiest."

At the 2008, Marketing to Women Conference, Najoh Tita-Reid, former director of multicultural marketing for P&G and creator of the My Black is Beautiful Initiative explained that girls in general, begin looking to validate their beauty at a young age, but many African-American girls don't always find (enough) positive images of themselves in the media:

It was revealing that young African-American girls were recognizing that the culture had identified them as Black, and not mainstream beautiful. At that time, young Black girls, particularly dark skin girls, rarely saw images of themselves and recognized that the media had not affirmed the gamut of Black beauty.
Many Blacks who have seen the doll test are quick to point the finger at mainstream media for promoting decades of stereotyping and other negative images. The Black America Study confirms this belief by reporting that only 29% of Black Americans strongly agree that mainstream is doing a good job of portraying Blacks in a positive light. However, the study also discloses that half (50%) say that they don't relate to the way Blacks are portrayed on most Black TV shows.

Leonard Pitts Jr., journalist for the Miami Herald, wrote about the doll tests and lambasted Black Americans' for contributions to their own negative self image in his article, Blacks Often Share Blame for Poor Self Image (Miami Herald, Sept. 18, 2006):

African Americans are, themselves, often the makers and gatekeepers. And under our aegis, the images have, in many ways, gotten worse. To surf the music video channels is to be immersed in black culture as conceived by a new generation, a lionization of pimps and gold diggers, hustlers and thugs who toss the N-word with a gusto that would do the Klan proud.

A new generation, afflicted with historical amnesia, blind indifference and a worship of filthy lucre, dances a metaphoric buck and wing, eyes rolling, yassuh bossing, selling itself out, selling its forebears out. Most of all, selling the children out.
In spite of Black socio-economic progress, Black America still has issues about skin color (light skin vs. dark skin), hair (good hair vs. bad hair), and racial heritage (mixed race vs. single race).

The reality is the struggle of having to think about one's identity is still very real for many Blacks, especially bi-racial Blacks who are often pressured to "choose and declare." Additionally, the need to consciously or unconsciously think "Black first" is often equated with fighting the myth that being Black has less value than other races or cultures.

As creators and gatekeepers of images, the media and communications companies have an opportunity to effectively connect with Black Americans in a positive and compelling way by telling stories that have never been told. Think: the My Black is Beautiful initiative mentioned earlier; Commonground Marketing's successful Style Meets Substance campaign for Miller Genuine Draft which celebrates Black men's style, coming of age and their positive contributions to society; or the Tide with Downy commercial, where the image of the Black father lovingly stroking the back of his child who is napping on his chest, is viewed as a caring caretaker. According to the Tide brand team, that commercial helped generate the highest ROI over any Tide brand. Not all programs or advertising need be serious or sappy, but the question: How does this idea add value? should be an important component of the marketing strategy development when targeting Black and other underserved or undervalued segments.

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Pepper Miller's address has changed. It is now pepper@huntermillergroup.com

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