Casting an Ad Isn't Everything -- Content Counts Just as Much

Diverse Faces Are Good, but Multicultural Consumers Are Turned Off by Stereotypes, as Are Whites

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The use of ethnically diverse casting in advertising geared to the general market has increased significantly in recent years. But casting alone is not enough to make an ad meaningful to ethnic consumers. And it can it can generate negative reactions when approached in a stereotyped or unrealistic way, including among non-Hispanic white consumers.

When Millward Brown tested 30 targeted TV commercials before an audience of African-American consumers in 2010, we found that 90% of the ads that featured black casting and cultural elements that blacks could relate to performed above average. But 85% of the commercials with no cultural elements other than black casting fell below that average.

The issue of casting among Hispanic consumers is trickier because Latinos can be of any race, and it is hard to determine (without falling into stereotypes) whether casting is Hispanic or not. In most cases, the only way one can be sure is if an ad is in Spanish. But when it comes to language, research shows that in-culture communication, depicting familiar situations, is more relevant to Hispanics than just hearing an advertisement in Spanish.

As for non-Hispanic whites, they now expect advertising to reflect the multicolored world they live in. Research shows that they generally don't view advertising that uses diverse casting as geared to someone other than themselves -- even with an all-ethnic cast. Furthermore, when confronted with ethnic-specific targeting, non-Hispanic whites are rarely offended by it; many actually take offense on behalf of ethnic consumers when exposed to stereotyped ads.

This is good news for marketers who are still unconvinced of the potential of cross-cultural approaches and concerned that ethnic targeting will alienate their so-called mainstream consumer. The risk of that happening is low. But it is always a good practice to do research, as these guidelines can vary depending on who your mainstream audience is specifically. Heartland-America consumers, for example, can potentially be more sensitive to this type of communication than people in the northeast or California.

There is no magic recipe for casting in advertising, but marketers can follow some guidelines when trying to reach a specific ethnic segment or the new mainstream at large:

  • Include imagery that mirrors the degree of multiculturalism found in your consumer target , which might not be that of the general population. Millennial consumers are far more likely than boomers to have a transcultural mindset. Advertising targeted to them should not just portray characters of different races, but depict them in situations that reflect how interconnected their lives truly are, including for example interracial dating.

  • Dial up cultural cues if your goal is to attract more ethnic consumers. But do it in a natural way, without forcing the ethnic factor. Remember that your goal is to tell consumers something about your brand, not to talk about Hispanic or African American cultures. Focus your message on attributes that are important to your category, and use culture and casting to provide a relevant context.

  • Avoid the one-of -each approach. You don't have to have all races or ethnicities represented in every commercial. Consumers notice and dismiss advertising that is just trying to be "politically correct." Extreme multiculturalism is inauthentic to many.

  • Consumers expect diversity not only in casting, but also in life situations. Ethnic consumers –- including non-Hispanic Whites –- influence and are influenced by each other, especially when it comes to entertainment, food, sports and fashion. Reflect this in your communication. Using Shakira in mainstream advertising or American football in communication targeted to Latinos is feasible.

  • Avoid stereotypes. Acknowledge and reflect the diversity within segments. Not all Hispanics have mustaches, not all African Americans like hip-hop, and not all Asians work in technology. Remember that the concept of diverse casting applies to both mainstream and ethnically targeted communication. You do not always have to have an all-black casting in your communication targeted to African-Americans.

David Burgos is the co-author of Marketing to the New Majority: Strategies for a Diverse World, (Palgrave Macmillan, August 2011) and head of Millward Brown's Multicultural Practice. He is Leader of the ARF's People Forum and won the ARF's 2008 Great Mind Award. He frequently speaks at conferences and consults with Fortune 500 companies on the changing face of U.S. multicultural markets.
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