'Urban' Trope Misses a Large Swath of Black Consumers

Middle-Class Images Abound, but Advertisers Are Ignoring Single Moms, Gays and Lower-Income African-Americans at Their Peril

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SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- Mention the word "urban" and marketers see a young black man with headphones, fresh sneakers and a slick cellphone, bobbing his head to a hip-hop soundtrack down a graffiti'd city street. That's the hackneyed image of the African-American consumer portrayed in many campaigns.

One of the few spots in the Super Bowl that acknowledged the existence of single parents was a consumer-generated one for Doritos.
One of the few spots in the Super Bowl that acknowledged the existence of single parents was a consumer-generated one for Doritos.
Yes, there is an urban market -- and many urban African-Americans use cellphones as their primary media/computer devices, for sure. And when it comes to fashion, music and culture, it's a market that's extremely influential.

But marketers that assume "urban" represents the entire African-American population are missing out on other key consumer segments.

Segments such as the black single mother, the black gay or lesbian, and the black lower-income earner have been overlooked by marketers and lumped together under the misleading "urban" umbrella.

"There is no monolithic blackness," said Lynne d Johnson, a senior VP at the Advertising Research Foundation. But "if you are not the Ebony or Essence reader, you are underrepresented. There are other segments within the African-American demographic that are not those or hip-hop."

She added that repurposing mainstream ads for the market or advertising only on black websites and in black publications is not marketing to the demographic. "Where is the engagement, where is the conversation?" Ms. Johnson asked.

We don't have to convince anyone anymore that the African-American consumer is important. In 2009, the African-American market equaled $910 billion.

It's important for advertisers and marketers to understand that this $910 billion is available to companies that understand the nuances of the culture and the insights that come from understanding. As smart advertisers know, insights create better advertising, which leads to the kind of decision-making brands want at point-of-purchase.

Addressing and talking about specific concerns of the segment an advertiser is marketing to are essential parts of having a successful campaign that results in brand loyalty. So how do you talk to single black mothers? Understand their concerns.

"About 71% of black births in the U.S. are to single mothers," said Pepper Miller of the Hunter Miller Group, a market research group specializing in African-American consumers. "These mothers believe they are different from white mothers -- they believe they get less support from the family of the baby's father than a single white mother. They also believe they are stereotyped as welfare queens and that they do not raise well-behaved children. This is an opportunity for advertisers to create a relationship with her, to tell her story and to connect with her, to make her feel important and relevant."

In other words, just because she feels different doesn't mean an advertiser can't make her feel special.

Research shows that the African-American gay or lesbian consumer has a higher income and is better educated than the average consumer, and yet this is not a targeted market, unlike the white counterpart. This week, for example, "The A List" -- described as a "Real Housewives" for gay men -- premiered on Logo. It had all the product placement, the shopping, the cars, the wine drinking and the restaurants that can be crammed into a one-hour reality show based in New York City.

What it was missing was black representation. "The black LGBT segment is totally ignored by advertisers," Ms. Johnson said. "And typical African-American ads or LGBT ads don't speak to this consumer."

A third consumer segment that has been overlooked is the lower-income household. "They tend to live, worship and socialize exclusively in the black community," said Ms. Miller. "While the black middle class goes out for sushi and travels to Europe, this group takes driving vacations around the United States, primarily to the South."

According to a study by Target Market News, this group goes to the store more often than almost any other type of consumer in that same income class, which means they spend more money, especially on packaged goods. Nielsen data show the lowest income population growing the fastest, as much as 17.8% in some scenarios, with affluent and wealthy segments declining (9.2% and 5.5%, respectively). And within the entire African-American consumer class, this segment spends the most per month on groceries -- a great opportunity for many big brands to target this family- and community-oriented group. And yet they are largely ignored.

Unfortunately, anecdotal research shows that marketers are currently not asking to market to this audience. Mobile social network Mocospace has 14 million members divided about evenly by thirds into African-Americans, Hispanics and whites. Casey Jones, Mocospace VP of marketing and music, said that while many big brands have come to him to target the black members of Mocospace, none have asked for specific segmentation.

"We have not had them ask for that level of targeting," Mr. Jones said. "But we hope to see that. We can provide it through structured data and behavioral data, but have not done it so far."

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