Don't Be Fooled by Obama's Victory: Sharp Racial Divisions Persist

Election Studies Show It's a Mistake to Assume One Market Fits All

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More and more, marketers are backing away from the idea of targeted multicultural advertising in favor of a "general market" approach. It's a philosophy that seems to fit the current mood of America.

"We're not as divided as our politics suggest," proclaimed a newly re-elected Barack Obama during his victory speech. With Americans split down the middle on seemingly every issue -- from guns to health care, from abortion to the deficit -- we did manage to come together and reelect our first African-American president.

But the nation is still hardly as unified as the president's rhetoric would have it. Two recent studies suggest, for example, that it may be a grave mistake for marketers to assume that Americans see eye to eye when it comes to race.

One study by professors at Stanford, the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan found that the proportion of voters answering questions with "explicit anti-black attitudes" increased to 50.9% in 2012 from 47.6% in 2008. They found a corresponding decrease among those expressing "pro-Black attitudes," to 41.9% from 46.7%.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there were large differences by political party. And the chasm widened between 2008 and 2012.

In the other study, political scientists at Brown and UCLA found that voters high on a racial-resentment scale moved closer to identifying with the Republican Party, and concluded that Obama's 2008 election "activated long-dormant old fashioned racism" and caused many white Americans to leave the Democrats.

I'm not going to be the one to declare that half of Americans, as the first study implies, have racist tendencies. But racism can be subtle. It can be institutionalized.

There is another argument that needs to be made. Blacks and whites, on many measures, see the world in quite different ways. And this has direct implications on how we advertise.

For instance, a study by the University of Arkansas' Diane D. Blair Center found that 47% of African Americans felt that there was "too little attention paid to race and racial issues," compared to only 14% of whites. Conversely 56% of whites felt that "too much attention" is placed on race, compared to 14% of blacks. About 80% of Blacks said that they "experience day to day discrimination."

Pepper Miller said it best in her artful and insightful book, "Black Still Matters in Marketing": "Marketers have to understand that they cannot judge customers for being different from them or by some idealistic standard that does not represent real customers. Instead, marketers are going to have to get to know these segments individually, seeing them for who they really are, and learning their experiences and needs. This is a real opportunity to forge deep and lasting relationships with groups of customers who have been overlooked and unengaged."

The data show that a post-racial society we are not. So does common sense. Is not 11:00 on Sunday morning, as Dr. Martin Luther King declared, the most segregated hour in America? Blacks and whites worship differently, talk differently, even walk differently. We tend to live in different neighborhoods. Clearly, we are not going to respond to the same ad in the same way.

Regardless of one's ideology, marketers cannot afford to assume that racial and ethnic differences do not exist. It denies the simple fact that we each have distinct backgrounds and experiences. As a result, we respond to ads differently. Diversity should not be about assuming homogeneity, but rather, recognizing and acknowledging differences. It begins with respect. Respecting difference, respecting one's right to see the world in one's own unique way.

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