"i've seen plenty of things making fun of us. ... We would love to be part of a general marketing campaign if the media world would accept Muslims as a common part of the North American diaspora." -- Amethyst, creator of Ninjabi
Advertising in the U.S. has often influenced the pop-culture identities of religious and ethnic minorities. To be targeted by marketers serves as an invitation to join in the national narrative of capitalism. To shop is to be an American.
In the coming years, the U.S. market will likely begin to recognize and court the $170 billion purchasing power of American Muslims. To date, pop-culture representations of Islam are either cloaked in evil or infused with pathos. But as Hallmark, Wal-Mart and 20th Century Fox begin creating content engaging this demographic, it will slowly help to show that American Muslims are, as Farid Senzai said, "as boring as the rest of us."
When considering advertising's slow embrace of the Islamic consumer, we must acknowledge legal scholar Leti Volpp's point that "Sept. 11 facilitated the consolidation of a new identity category that groups together people who appear Middle Eastern, Arab or Muslim. This consolidation reflects a 'racialization' wherein members of this group are identified as terrorists and misidentified as citizens."
It is this perception that created the Dunkin' Donuts controversy. In a 2008 campaign for Dunkin', spokeswoman Rachael Ray wore a scarf that looked like a keffiyeh. Conservative blogger and Fox analyst Michelle Malkin then chided Ray for wearing a "jihadi chic" garment. Dunkin' Donuts dropped the advert. At no point was the spot even attempting to engage Islam or the Middle East, yet there was a backlash.
While I am certain that brands considering this space are aware of the pernicious anti-Muslim chatter in the media, I posit that this may be similar to the hurdles brands faced when first reaching out to gay and lesbian consumers. And as Saad Ahmad, of the blog Chill Yo, Islam Yo, said, "Seeing that we live in a capitalist society, [including Islam] in advertising is really just an economic issue."
As Almas Abbasi, a radiologist on Long Island, told The New York Times, "If Ramadan starts, and you see an ad in the newspaper saying, 'Happy Ramadan, here's a special in our store,' everyone will run to that store."
American brands do such things within primarily Islamic countries -- Burger King in the United Arab Emirates, Hewlett-Packard in Bangladesh, Oreos in Indonesia, etc. But to date, no Muslim holidays are seized as sales opportunities in the U.S., except perhaps in Dearborn, Mich., the city with the highest concentration of Muslims and Middle Eastern folks in America. Wal-Mart has opened a store in Dearborn designed for this demo. According to Newsweek:
Wal-Mart offers its standard fare, plus 550 items targeted at Middle Eastern shoppers. ... Walk through the front door of the 200,000-square-foot supercenter and instead of rows of checkout counters, you find a scene akin to a farmers market in Beirut. Twenty-two tables are stacked high with fresh produce such as the kusa and batenjan, squash and eggplant used in Middle Eastern dishes. ... A walled-off section of the butcher case is devoted to halal meats.
Ikea has taken measures to court Dearborn shoppers, and the local McDonald's and KFC serve halal meat. On the national scale, Hallmark carries Eid cards, and the U.S. Postal Service issued an Eid stamp in 2001. But that's about it.
While tailoring products to reach this consumer base is one important step for retailers, author Yasmine Hafiz reminds us that "the average Muslim consumer is much like the average American consumer, with wants and needs mainly dictated by their income, education and type of family. Their socioeconomic status dictates their spending habits more than their religious affiliation. ... There's a lot of untapped buying potential amongst all these doctors and engineers."
And as noted on the blog Muslim Canvas: "I guess the value I see in this marketing stuff is the effect it'll have on the American psyche, rather than the Muslim psyche necessarily. [Seeing] a hijabi mom spreading Jif peanut butter on her son's sandwich or a long-bearded man answering the door on a Domino's commercial, could go a long way for our 'image.'"
The forthcoming U.S. version of the sitcom "Little Mosque on the Prairie" could be a space for product placement. That said, the industry must aim to be adroit, not fall into the tropes of the soul claps and sombreros we see in so much minority advertising. Don't forget about the racial diversity in the faith or that only half of U.S. Muslim females wear a hijab. I do believe that new media and transmedia planning proffer a wealth of intelligent ways in which to engage and involve the Islamic consumer base.
And since there is money to be made, this will indeed happen. Soon come the adverts.
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Michael Hastings-Black is the co-owner of New York City production company Desedo Films. Read a longer version of this paper.