Getting to the Root of Univision's Acquisition of The Root

Four Reasons Why Marketers Should Care About the Acquisition

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When people asked me what I thought about Univision acquiring African-American news site The Root, I wanted to hit the mute button on my cynicism and stay focused on the positive. Here was an opportunity to celebrate the implied unity of communities of color -- communities that, in spite of their differences, have a lot in common and a lot to gain by working together. I wanted to underscore the importance of this acquisition and address implications for agencies and clients alike.

Why should anyone care? Here are four reasons:

1. Because if it's of interest to millennials, it's of interest to you. Millennials are not color-blind. Quite the opposite. They are color-conscious and color-comfortable. In fact, because they are such a multi-ethnic cohort, many are themselves millennials "of color." They consume massive amounts of content and are tired of how the multicultural story is being told, if it is being told at all.

Here's an opportunity for both The Root and Univision to present a more dimensional and deeper multicultural story. For The Root, this could mean forging a more relevant connection to the broader black community, which includes, but is not exclusively African-American. For Univision, this means doing some work on its relationship with the U.S.-born Hispanic, particularly with the artistic community and thought leaders. In addition, Univision must update its cultural filters to eliminate outdated class-based racism carried over from Latin America. The work has begun.

2. The minority/majority shift is a shift of perspective -- not just population. Although neither Univision nor The Root is minority-owned (at the moment), they are both clearly committed to their distinct audiences and understand that they would benefit those audiences by engaging with each other in new and innovative ways. Let's hope they do -- there is only upside potential.

3. Budgets need to stop pitting these groups against each other. That's not a take-away from the acquisition, but it is related. One-stop media shopping often creates an either/or paradigm. Either black or Hispanic. That's not productive. It's destructive. Marketers need to take a look at the duplication in their overall non-targeted spend and if the pie needs slicing, look at the whole pie, not just these two pieces.

4. Black Hispanics are not African-Americans who speak Spanish. Again, this is not a specific learning from the acquisition, but well worth mentioning. Consumer histories and cultural specifics are critical to authenticity, and authenticity is critical to consumer engagement and loyalty.

In a press release about the acquisition, Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the Root stated, "This bold new partnership between Univision and The Root underscores the ties that have long bound people of color together throughout the Western Hemisphere and is a sign of even greater levels of communication, collaboration and exchange between these culturally vital groups of people."

This aligns with the way Essence Magazine founder Edward Lewis looked at the cross-cultural possibilities when he partnered with Latina Magazine in 1995.

So what's the reference to cynicism all about? It's about ghosts from Hispanic advertising's past. I can't help but consider Univision's early position on the subject of Latino diversity. In 1989, a New York Times article entitled "TV Unites and Divides Hispanic Groups" tackled the topic and had this to say:

"Critics of the networks accused them of 'gross, gross prejudice and racism. ' The networks deny any bias. But [a representative for] Univision is forthright on the subject of television's preference for fair skin … Asked why lighter-skinned people were preferred, he said: 'It has to be said without being afraid, that television as well as movies is a business for beautiful people. It's entertainment.' The notion infuriates many Hispanic viewers, most of whom are not blond and never will be."

Fast forward to 2015 -- Univision's World Cup coverage challenged the network to address homophobic fan chants and, in doing so, to face up to racially-biased and insulting commentary from its own on-air talent, not just fans in stands. Nature or nurture? Cultural history or condescending habit? Last month, the network ousted host Rodner Figueroa for racially- insensitive remarks. Scapegoat or a serious stake in the ground?

Perhaps the acquisition is purely business. Perhaps change is really underway. Both can be true.

I am reminded that this week is Día Etnia Negra (Black Ethnicity Day) in Panamá -- a celebration of African and West Indian influences. Perhaps we can look forward to a more vibrant celebration of the U.S. Black Latino experience as the Univision-Root acquisition explores untapped opportunities. Similarly, the blog MiTu recently featured a black kid from Compton who loves Corridos -- another example of cross-cultural influences in action. This is key to the acquisition -- exploring intersections of cultural commonality instead of standing on either side of the great divide.

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