A Letter From the Editor: Scoring Whitey Points With Blacks

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You can almost see the fear in advertisers' eyes. No matter how many conferences and seminars on minority marketing they attend, no matter how many trade magazine specials and white papers on the topic see the light of day (Ha! White papers!), the awful truth is this: advertisers and agencies still have no idea how to credibly talk to minorities. Or how to even portray minorities in non-'special market' ads.

Political correctness inhibits good advertising. Fear of offending is the mortal enemy of creativity. So in addition to many other small injustices, non-whites have to suffer through ads that shy away from humor and candor and 'edginess.' Madison Avenue is only comfortable with the feel-good, self-esteem-building variety of minority advertising. Inevitably, blandness rules.

Telecom firms and airlines, especially, try to serve so many different demographics that their advertising almost always ends up being insipid and forgettable. It's like those plodding, self-important Cisco spots of last year. Desperately trying to do right by everyone, they show a happy world of connectedness that looks like a gathering of the friggin' Rainbow Coalition. It's not that anyone minds the presence of those minorities (except, of course, Pat Buchanan and David Duke); but when you get the uneasy sense that you're watching unadulterated tokenism, the ads naturally come across as insincere and paternalistic. They might very well have the opposite of the intended effect. They might put everyone off.

Now, it can't be easy to walk in advertisers' shoes. Should you direct casting to hire an extra black or Hispanic actor? If you do, some critics will charge tokenism. If you don't, others might say you're insensitive, or a racist. And let's put this in perspective. At least we've come a long way since blacks' portrayal in advertising, for the better part of the 20th century, as zaftig plantation mammies and gratefully groveling shoeshine boys.

What still grates, however, is the overwhelming sameness of minorities' portrayal in ads. At least since the early 1980s and until only a few years ago, it was unthinkable to have anyone but a white male be the butt of the joke in a funny spot. I sense that it's now OK to portray the occasional woman in a less than flattering light (provided it's all in good fun), but it is still highly unusual to see a darker-skinned man or woman portrayed as anything less than genial, smart, motivated, competent, and going places. In fact, it is so unusual that when we at Creativity saw a spot last year featuring a bumbling idiot who seriously maims himself with a lawnmower, we had to write about it - because said bumbling idiot happened to be black. The director's response was an apparently sincere 'So what?' He argued that idiots come in all shapes, sizes and colors, which is undeniably so. After the spot aired, he said, he didn't receive any complaints from minorities (or their white-guilt advocates). Which cheered me. Maybe, as a nation, we're growing a little less sensitive and a little less politically correct. Or maybe, since this was a Canadian spot, it never had much of a chance to draw the NAACP's attention, much less its ire.

Whatever the case: as long as advertisers don't adopt a bolder stance, minority advertising will continue to be creative Siberia. Which is not the greatest place to be. And as many a bereaved opossum family can tell you, neither is the middle of the road.

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