Interracial Marriage Is Widely Accepted, But Not for Ad Families

Society Has Advanced, and Savvy Firms Will Seize the Gap as an Opportunity

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Was I wrong? That was the question I asked myself just weeks after I wrote in this blog that the firing of Patrick Buchanan from MSNBC signaled the mainstream's embracing of multiculturalism. What got me thinking? A widely disseminated poll by Public Policy Polling that found 21% of Republican voters in Alabama and 29% in Mississippi think that interracial marriage should be illegal. Adding insult to injury, the poll found that half in both states think -- I assume disapprovingly -- that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Did I miss the boat or is the Deep South just out of whack?

Michelle Cottle, a Southerner who contributes to the Daily Beast, feels that the poll treats her "tribe" unfairly. "With the political world returning its attention to the voting action in Dixie," she writes, "the bulk of the nation is indulging once more in that most satisfying of political pastimes: jeering at what a pack of racist, ass-backward idjits they think populate the Deep South." Why, she asks, were Southerners asked these questions in the first place, when Republicans in Arizona and Colorado, for example were not asked about Hispanics and immigration? "I mean, if we're going to plumb voters' innermost prejudices, why not dissect those likely to have real policy implications going forward?"

Cottle is right that the poll projects an image of Southerners that is inaccurate, at least as far as the issue of intermarriage goes. A Gallup survey in September showed that 86% of Americans approve of interracial marriage, including nearly eight in 10 in the South. The Pew Research Center calculated last month that 15% of all new marriages in the U.S. are between spouses of different ethnicities, more than double the number in 1980.

There is an age difference. Of 18- to 29-year-olds, 97% approved, compared with only two-thirds of those 65 and older. But in 1958, only 4% in total approved of interracial marriage. We didn't hit the halfway mark until 1997 -- 30 years after the Supreme Court ruled that what used to be called anti-miscegenation (intermarriage) laws were unconstitutional. At that time, blacks and whites could not legally marry in 16 states.

Our society has come a long way on this issue. Too bad we can't say the same for the advertising industry, which rarely treads into interracial ground.

Television programming, at least to a certain extent, has reflected the increase of interracial marriage. In the mid-2000s, the series "Grey 's Anatomy" featured a love affair between an Asian woman, played by Sandra Oh, and an African-American man, played by Isaiah Washington. Today, NBC's "Parenthood" features a relationship between a white man and a black woman. ABC's "Happy Endings" has a black man married to a white woman. Fox's "Traffic Light" and ABC's "Mr. Sunshine," though canceled last year, are also examples. And both "Glee" and "Modern Family" take this game to an entirely new level with gay parents.

Commercials don't go there, which is ironic given the ubiquity of mixed-race models. One notable exception was Verizon, which several years ago aired sitcom-like commercials with the Elliott family, with a white dad and a Latina mom. However, more the norm are ads like the ones for eHarmony or Viagra, which seem to go to great lengths to show same-race couples. Is it because they risk offending a swath of customers?

I think not. In 2005, the pop-culture critic and University of Southern California professor Todd Boyd was interviewed by NPR on the subject of interracial couples on television. "At this stage in time, there may be people in our society who are uncomfortable with interracial relationships, but ... there are far more controversial issues that are on the list now," he said. "I'm not even sure if I think of it as pushing the envelope." If it wasn't pushing the envelope seven years ago, it certainly isn't now.

America has changed in its demography and attitudes, a reality that is not yet reflected in advertising. That spells opportunity for marketers. As Verizon must have figured out, showing a mixed-race couple in a commercial is a wink to the millions of Americans who are either in interracial relationships, or more profoundly, the 9 million people in the 2010 Census who reported that they are more than one race. Not to mention the 19 million who reported being "some other race." Or the 43% of us who think that intermarriage is a good thing for our country.

Why is representation so important? Madison Avenue spends so much money on market research with companies like mine to understand what makes consumers tick, to achieve a stronger emotional connection with them. When you've been in the minority (whether gay, in a mixed-race relationship, with disabilities, of color) and you see yourself in a commercial, it means something. That's the wink. It's a "My God, they get me."

As for the Deep South, it may ultimately be demographics, specifically Hispanic migration, that change the attitude of some about multiculturalism. According to the 2010 Census, three of the five U.S. counties with the fastest growth in Hispanic population were in Georgia and Alabama. In Georgia alone, 120 counties (6% of the nation's total) had a Hispanic growth percentage above the national average of 43%. America is changing. The South is changing faster.

After I wrote my last blog, I got some hate mail. Clearly, like Buchanan, not everyone in America thinks change is a good thing. But that we are going through profound social and demographic change is beyond dispute. For marketers, that should be a call to take the lead in promoting an idea -- the idea of a new America -- and in the process, win over a whole lot of consumers who used to be uninvited to the party.

David Morse is president-CEO of New American Dimensions and the author of Multicultural Intelligence: Eight Make-or-Break Rules for Marketing to Race, Ethnicity, and Sexual Orientation
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