Clarence Smith, former president of Essence, used to paint a picture for media buyers young and old to demonstrate the value of a magazine dedicated to a powerful audience missing from mainstream women's magazines. The scenario was described as a world where everyone in the country is green. All of the magazines, newspapers, billboards, TV shows and commercials showed people that were green. Imagine that you are purple. You stopped by a newsstand and see hundreds of magazines with green people on the cover. You notice a magazine with a purple person on the cover and are immediately drawn to and embrace the concept that you are finally understood and celebrated. A very powerful consumer connection is at work that does not exist with other women's magazines. Hopefully the Essence sales story does not have to be retold now.
Yes, there are more black women images in media and advertising than years ago. Yes, sometimes it is overdone and we wonder about the selection of talent and intent. I do still hear stories of creatives that like having black women with hair that resembles topiary in the commercials since it "shows well" on camera, referring to the twists, locs and natural styles. I still hear stories of modeling agencies that still have limits on black women models that they will represent while the sameness of blond models has no limit.
Still, many marketers are trying. And even if they don't always get it right, most of us do applaud the effort. And when they do get it right? The short and controversial life of the Sprite 'Miles Thirst' campaign goes down as a legendary tale among black industry professionals. They question whether blacks were involved in the concept and use the campaign as an example of why there is a need for more diversity in the business.
The topic of color and complexion have been a love-hate issue for those creating marketing images as well as a self-image concern for those consumers of a darker hue for quite some time. A fascination with dark-complexioned people and the product innovations that have given way to create and celebrate large lips, large behinds and a tanned complexion at the risk of cancer is still prevalent. At the same time, there still exist many behind-the-door conversations in the creative process about the complexion of talent, the role that talent plays and whether it is believable. Even at the cost of overdoing it in the wrong direction.
That said, marketers should be trying to broaden the appeal of their messaging -- even if it seems frightening at times.
Five Things to Do If You're Unsure About the Issue of Color
- Get a trusted team in place, whether it is a multicultural agency, brand consultancy or simply a group that you trust.
- If you still don't have a diverse talent pool (i.e. more than one person of color) at least make sure that you have a network of smart, strategic confidants that can guide you.
- Sameness is boring and dull. To really break through the clutter, focus on representing the many hues of your consumers.
- Don't analyze (read: focus groups) to paralysis. Fear of offending can prevent great work from seeing the light of day. At some point, common sense needs to take over.
- No matter what, don't ignore it. The browning of America is not going away and connecting with your consumers in a meaningful way will be crucial to beating the competition.