A Cross-cultural Manifesto: Why Both Sides Are Wrong About Multicultural

Here's a Four-Point Sniff Test to Approaching the Concept Correctly

By Published on .

Ken Muench
Ken Muench
The demographics of the country have changed irrevocably. No longer is the concept of a vast, white, homogeneous culture, and several siloed multicultural ones, a given. More and more, minorities are principle creators of this country's central story. This is obvious to everybody -- except xenophobes and ad agencies.

Most advertising pros won't dispute the influence of multicultural folks, but in the face of cultural change, agencies -- multicultural and general-market alike -- seem to be caught like a deer in headlights.

Not only are the halls of many general-market shops eerily lacking in the colors that fill the surrounding neighborhoods, but what they call "diversity" amounts to counting the number of brown and black faces in their ads to ensure the minimal threshold has been met to avoid criticism.

And that's where a cross-cultural approach comes in. Or rather, where it could come in ... if done correctly.

Cross-culturalism is, essentially, the leveraging of ethnicity and culture in "general market" advertising. It's about the African-American, Hispanic and Asian voices not being relegated solely to a special channel or publication, but also treated as authors of the main play, as they already are in pop culture.

But since cross-cultural seems to be a term that can easily be co-opted and used as a veil for more of the same old traditional "general market" approach, I suggest a four-point sniff test:

1. Cross-culturalism is not an advertising melting pot. It's about each culture's innate uniqueness coming across as such. That's exactly what makes things interesting to today's consumers.

2. Research is essential. Cross-culturalism requires people intimately familiar with the groups. Period. Otherwise the resulting hollowness will be counterproductive. Solid, methodical multicultural depth in planning, media, account management and creative are absolutely essential. Anything else is simply a sham.

3. Cross-culturalism does not negate the opportunity of creating an African-American, Hispanic or Asian-specific program. And if the "general market" campaign was done with these consumers in a central role, then the tailoring won't have to be so severe that you end up with a schizophrenic brand.

4. A total-market advertising agency can do it -- if it meets the criteria in point No. 2. A multicultural agency can do it -- if it sees beyond the confines of its own silo.

Some general-market shops pitch the idea of a colorblind, melting-pot society where there are no differences, while most multicultural shops glom onto the notion of consumers as separate silos and claim to be the sole suppliers of said consumers' insights.

Neither argument is valid. Both are simply shallow attempts at growing their respective bottom lines.

The notion of cross-culturalism is, I believe, the type of solution clients are asking for.

I'm sure there are other, perhaps better, ones. But it may be awhile until they see the light of day, because instead of searching and proposing, too many agencies are spending time arguing about what shade of the old model works best.

Ken Muench is senior VP-director of multicultural strategic planning at DraftFCB, Chicago.
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