It’s become a full-fledged assault. From an Everest guy yelling at us through the television set, telling us that we’re “sitting on the couch, watching TV and your life is passing you by,” to McDonald’s conducting wholesale music videos, companies have gotten downright blatant in their attempts to reach and study Black audiences.
Last week, Farhad Manjoo wrote a piece for Slate explaining “how Black people use Twitter.” According to Manjoo, Black people are fond of hashtags (#) and topics that evince some of the, let’s say, nuanced aspects of Black culture. Some examples listed to support the author’s argument:
Of the many points this article made, the larger one is this: there are a host of people at institutions that make a living studying the behaviors and actions and likes and dislikes of Black people. This isn’t problematic on the surface. However, in the interest of taxonomy and marketing, the lowest denominator tends to characterize a whole group of people. Manjoo quotes a Ph.D student from Carnegie Mellon who downloaded 100 million African American tweets (which is interesting, being that marking your race isn’t required to have a Twitter handle).
Twitter has, in effect, become a marketer’s dream.
To the initiated eye, such pandering is insulting and revealing. It recalls many limiting stereotypes some Black folks have worked their whole lives, even generations, to debunk. For every stereotypical depiction of singing, dancing, jesters, sass and flamboyance, there are millions more who are just the opposite. Contemporary advertisements seem to have no room for distinction, but caricature. As obvious as these images are in pursuit of profit, businesses have no incentive to stop them.
For one, these commercial spots are the result of a behind-the-scenes process that has to pass the test of 40 and 50 year-old executives. Secondly, these commercials are working. Thirdly, these commercials are working. During the behind-the-scenes process, the advertising copywriter has to convince execs that their money is not being wasted. Nuance is discouraged because that would require the consumer to think more than he/she has to. A marketing no-no. It’s better for ads to err on the side of obviousness.
In marketing terms, this is called targeted advertising. To get to this point, businesses generally hire an outside advertising agency to assess the market demographic, psychographic, and social habits, of the desired audience. For example, when McDonald’s instituted one dollar meals, this was specifically aimed at a lower-income Hispanic and Black group. What McDonald’s has done since is mine that hole.
Even the most progressive-minded ad copywriter would face the harshest of resistance if he or she deviated from this formula. The executives must be convinced there is a clear line between marketing to the general audience and targeted audience. For a Black agency to get the chance to do ads for black consumers, it has to convince White clients and businesses they know how to do it. They have to use devices to hit that bulls-eye. Why would a business use subtlety and nuance to attract a culture not known for subtlety and nuance?
Cue the obligatory dancing, singing and playing of sports—preferably basketball.
So let’s see: the advertisement comes out formulaic and market researched (read: stereotypical). The sellout process began long before it hit the television airwaves. Who does this hurt more? Well, the people being confined in a box via mass media. Are the hurt people in position to change this? Of course not. And even if they—we—were, what would stop these images from pervading our screens, magazines and newspapers if the formula is making dollars?
Society and mass media have a symbiotic relationship. Movies, music, television sitcoms and news programs—all are complicit in the image marketing firms use in their commercials. A lot of industries depend on the demoralization and stagnation of the personal and collective development of humans. This is insidious, no doubt, but it is for a purpose: money. Black people aren’t the only group exploited; they’re just among the easiest.
As Lupe rapped, “Don’t think you safe though, because you not Black. Greed is colorblind . . . they gon’ f–k with yours, soon as they done with mine.”
Targeted advertising isn’t stopping anytime soon. African Americans have an $803 billion spending power, according to Target Market News. The top areas of consumption:
Health Care—$23.9 billion
Look at the commercials that pander to Black audiences. A pattern has been developed, sustained and fortified. And what is the lowest area of consumption for African Americans, you ask?
The next lowest area of consumption: sports and recreational equipment at $1 billion. I don’t imagine we’ll be seeing a slate of commercials showing Black folks reading books anytime soon.