More TV Ads Project Images of Racial Harmony

Todd Lewan, AP, March 1, 2009

Ever see an inner-city schoolyard filled with white, Asian and black teens shooting hoops? Or middle-aged white and Latino men swigging beer and watching the Super Bowl on their black neighbor’s couch? Or Asians and Latinos dancing the night away in a hip-hop club?

All it takes is a television.

Yes, that mesmerizing mass purveyor of aspiration, desire and self-awareness regularly airs commercials these days that show Americans of different races and ethnicities interacting in integrated schools, country clubs, workplaces and homes, bonded by their love of the products they consume.

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Ads like these are part of a subtle, yet increasingly visible strategy that marketers refer to as “visual diversity”–commercials that enable advertisers to connect with wider audiences while conveying a message that corporate America is not just “in touch,” racially speaking, but inclusive.

It wasn’t always like this. For much of the past century, “minorities were either invisible in mainstream media, or handed negative roles that generally had them in a subservient position,” says Jerome Williams, a professor of advertising and African-American studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

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These “multiculti” ads may be evidence of the vitality of assimilation, America’s distinctive, master trend. To advertisers, though, they’re simply smart business–a recognition of a new cultural mainstream that prizes diversity, a recognition that we are fast approaching a day when the predominant hue in America will no longer be white.

“Going forward, all advertising is going to be multicultural by definition, because in most states, majority ethnic populations will no longer exist,” says Danny Allen, managing director at SENSIS, an ad agency in Los Angeles that specializes in reaching multicultural audiences through digital and online media.

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And yet, some critics wonder if depicting America as a racial nirvana today may have an unintended downside–that of airbrushing out of the public consciousness the economic and social chasms that still separate whites, blacks and Latinos.

Even on Madison Avenue, which is generating the inclusive messages, recent studies find few nonwhites in decision-making and creative positions within the advertising industry itself.

Are multiculti ads, then, an accurate barometer of our racial progress, a showcase of our hopes in that direction–or a reminder of how far we still have to go?

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Whites still hold most of the economic clout in the United States–85.5 percent of the nation’s annual buying power of $10 trillion, according to a 2007 study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.

In recent years, though, marketers have been revising old assumptions and campaigns in anticipation of profound shifts in the nation’s demographics, and in reaction to changes already under way in what the Selig Center describes as “The Multicultural Economy.”

They note that:

_African-American buying power has risen from $318 billion in 1990 to $845 billion in 2007–a 166 percent gain. Whites’ buying power rose 124 percent during that period.

_The combined buying power of African-Americans, Asians and Native Americans was $1.4 trillion in 2007, a gain of 201 percent since 1990. Meanwhile, the economic clout of Latinos rose by 307 percent, to $862 billion, over that span.

_The number of black-owned companies rose 45 percent from 1997 to 2002–4 1/2 times faster than the national average–and their receipts grew slightly faster than all others. Native American-owned businesses increased by 67 percent, Asian firms 24 percent, Latino companies 31 percent.

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If current trends continue, demographers say, nonwhites will be in the majority in America by 2042–a prospect not lost on advertisers, says Melanie Shreffler, editor of Marketing to the Emerging Majorities, an industry newsletter.

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The ads may play well now, but Carter [Karl Carter, chief executive of the Atlanta marketing agency GTM Inc. (Guerrilla Tactics Media)] wonders how long they will be effective–particularly as America “beiges” and race becomes less essential to how individuals self-identify. Over the long run, advertisers would do better, he says, to focus on a cultural approach with versatile images and campaigns easily adapted to highly individualized tastes. Put another way: How do hip-hoppers feel? What are the common desires of surfers, or skateboarders, or kayakers?

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“Advertising has to reflect reality, to some degree,” she says. “So, now that the president is African-American, I think companies that were once afraid to put members of multiple ethnic groups in their ads might see a chance here to go ahead and take a risk, or even see it as necessary.”

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Four men in suits and ties are eating in a Holiday Inn Express breakfast bar when they see a pretty white woman enter.

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This 2008 spot is clever not only for its humor, but because it gingerly tests one of several racial boundaries most advertisers are still loath to cross: The presentation of interracial courting or romance.

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Other no-nos?

There aren’t many ads depicting multiracial families or biracial couples interacting normally at home, whether having supper or watching a movie. And in ads that depict professional settings, people of color rarely appear in charge–as CEOs, say, giving presentations to their board of directors.

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One reason that racial distortions persist may be the relatively low numbers of blacks in the $31 billion advertising industry, and a dearth of blacks in positions of power.

A report released in January by the Madison Avenue Project, a coalition of legal, civil rights and ad industry leaders, found dramatic levels of bias in the industry, with African-American professionals lagging in pay, hiring, promotions and assignments.

Some findings:

_Black college graduates earn 80 cents for every dollar made by their equally qualified, white counterparts, and salaries of $100,000 are disproportionately less likely for African-American managers and professionals.

_Sixteen percent of large advertising firms employ no black managers or professionals; in the overall labor market, 7 percent of companies are without blacks in those positions.

_Blacks are only 62 percent as likely as whites to work in the powerful “creative” and “client contact” functions.

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And yet, might today’s ads also be implanting false assumptions that our race problems have been fixed, that all Americans are living comfortable, upper-middle-class lifestyles in racially harmonious settings?

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“If you were to come down from another planet and watch TV, you’d think that all of these human beings share a lot of intimacy, regardless of the way they look,” Gallagher [Charles Gallagher, chair and professor of the sociology department at La Salle University] says. “But the reality is, people of different races don’t share social space like that.”

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About 80 percent of whites live in neighborhoods in which 95 percent of their neighbors are also white, and census data shows 90 percent of the neighborhoods that were predominantly or exclusively black in 1990 remained that way a decade later.

“My students always say to me, ‘Isn’t it better to have these ads? It’s kind of a fake-it-’til-you-make-it kind of thing,'” Gallagher says. “The problem with that, I tell them, is that distortions and false impressions never do anyone any good.”

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“Advertising is aspirational,” [Schreffler] adds. “It’s who we want to be, a lifestyle we want–not always who we are.”

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