Why The Advertising Industry Still Lacks Diversity

Continuing with the same theme from my article a couple of weeks ago about diversity in the media, this week I wanted to touch on the advertising industry.  Like television shows, the TV commercials during the breaks, as well as ads in print and online media are starting to reflect the changing, diverse American landscape.  Just yesterday, I walked by my local Old Navy store, which featured a black woman and white man in an embrace and a biracial child standing in front of them, implying this was an interracial family enjoying the brand’s new winter clothing line.  Then I went to a bus stop and saw an ad from the Chicago Tourism Bureau featuring what could be implied as two gay men also embracing at a festive occasion.  Yes, this is the new normal.

However, in the last few months, there has been a slew of problematic ads getting media attention.  Even when ad agencies have good intentions in their attempt to be more inclusive, they can fail miserably.

Take this above Dove ad.

If you haven’t heard about it already, it featured a black woman morphing into a white woman who morphs into an Asian woman.  The main problem here is that it implies that somehow the soap cleans so well that it changes black skin to white skin.  While Dove claims it didn’t intend to be racist in the ad, the company has a history of using the same racial tropes in their ads.  Just six years ago, Dove was accused of doing the same exact black to white/dirty to clean ad.

Not to mention that there still product advertising using racial overtones in use today – Aunt Jemima Pancakes, Uncle Ben Rice and Chef Frank White (Rastus) on the Cream of Wheat box just to name a few.

Racist soap ads have a long, unfortunate history in America.  From 1875 to 1921, soap manufacturer N.K. Fairbank used this ad featuring a white child asking a black child, “Why don’t you ask your mamma to wash you with fairy soap.  There were other ads with black children getting washed in the tub and come out with white skin.

Unfortunately, I am not surprised that these subtle racial overtones are still used in advertising.  While it is true that the advertising industry is using more diverse imagery in their ad placement, there is still a serious lack of diverse people working in ad agencies.

According to the 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 582,000 Americans employed in advertising, less than half are women, seven percent are black, six percent are Asian and 10 percent are Hispanic.   Comparatively by 2044 when it becomes a minority-majority country, the United States will be 49.7 percent white  (63 percent today), 25 percent Hispanic (17 percent today), 12.7 percent black, 7.9 percent Asian and 3.7 percent multiracial.  Essentially, the ad world is lagging behind the real world!  Most of the major ad agencies in America are still run by older, privileged white men who attended elite schools and only interact with people who look like them, often reflecting the TV show Mad Men, but taking place in 2017, not the 1950s.

Also, if there were not only more people of color in decision-making positions but also more people in general with different perspectives with an understanding of how cultural sensitivity and awareness combines with trends and branding, this problem would greatly improve.  And when I mean being in a decision-making position, I don’t mean the “Chief of Diversity” or some other BS token minority position with no actual power and never disagree with their white peers within today’s corporate environment.  I mean black, Asian, Hispanic and women executives with knowledge and awareness of history and culture who can say, “We can’t run this ad because it’s racist/sexist/homophobic etc.”

I have done work with some larger ad agencies as a subcontracting web graphics developer and I have encountered these racial dynamics in their workplaces, where their token black employee just goes along to get along and agrees with all the dumb ideas from their white co-workers.

So basically until workforce diversity improves, there will be more similar Dove commercials in the future.

Typewriters Are Still Cool!

About a month ago, I had a meeting with my staff about our upcoming Teen ContentCamp.   We are planning on including a brief historical discussion of communication with our group of 25 tech-savvy teenagers.

“What if I showed them a typewriter,” my business partner Philip said sarcastically.  “I bet they wouldn’t even know what it was.”

So much has changed since I was a teen when I had to type out book reports on typewriters.  I still have my old typewriter somewhere in my basement.  But sometimes I feel like I want to go back to the analog world with the typewriter because looking at smartphones and computers can be mentally draining.

It seems like other people have the same idea and yearning for the days of old communication.  I hope I can convey to the kids that typewriters are still cool.

And a brief history of this magical machine.

Marketing to Generation X

I went to a seminar last week on how to market products and services to Millennials and Baby Boomers.  I know it is trendy to cater to these large demographics; however, I find it amazing how most marketers totally forget about a smaller demo sandwiched that is just as important – Generation X.

Gen Xers are considered to be those born between 1965 and 1980.  I fall near the tail-end of the demo. I don’t have much in common culturally and economically with Millennials, but marketers seem to think I fall into the younger demographic.

Let me give you some reasons more attention should be given to Generation X:

  • Spending Power: Gen Xers actually have more spending power than Baby Boomers and Millennials.  As a matter of fact, while we currently make up more than 25 percent of the American population – 65 million people, we have higher incomes than the other two demos.  We also have the highest rate of brand loyalty.  This will become more evident as Boomers start to retire and, well, many Millennials continue to live at home with their parents.
  • Financial stability: Statistically, Gen Xers are more responsible with their money.  We save more money or invest it into buying homes, leaving more money for our family and starting businesses.  In my opinion, I think this need for financial security is caused by the fact that we are the first generation to come into the working world without pensions offered by employers.

With all this said, why is Generation X always overlooked?  Many marketers literally don’t know how to communicate with us.  We came of age at the dawn of the current technological revolution, with one foot in the analog world (Boomers) and the other in the social media/Netflix/iPhone world (Millennials).  The best and most useful tool for Gen Xers is email communication that is tailored to our personal needs.  Email, not Twitter, is my thing and that is how I mainly talk to my cohorts.

Also, marketing should be geared to our financial and life responsibilities.  As we grew up as latchkey kids, we are very independent-minded and make safe life decisions.  I am always looking for the best and financially sound ways to run my business, pay my bills and take care of my family.  I tend to research most products or services online and finding deals before deciding to purchase.  So a coupon or a nice discount, preferably in an email marketing campaign detailing said product or service, would be great.

Gen Xers are more nostalgic.  At least once a week I say “things were so much better in the 90s.”  Really, everything was more interesting in the 90s – MTV actually showed music videos, hip-hop was real music (as was Pearl Jam and Nirvana), The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Living Single were awesome shows, the OJ Simpson trial was the greatest reality TV show, Rodney King’s black life mattered, everyone wore ‘X’ caps and Bill Clinton was president.  So we tend to spend money on things that support our nostalgia.  It is no wonder there are so many TV shows and movies from the 80s and 90s making a comeback and Salt-n-Pepa would be used in a Geico commercial.

My main point here is that Generation X matters.  Don’t forget about us in your next marketing campaign!

China: The Neo-Colonialist?

Zimbabwe arms shipment returns to ChinaA few weeks ago it was announced that Zimbabwe will use the Chinese yuan as an official currency.  In exchange, China will cancel the southern African country’s $40 billion debt. Mind you, the US dollar and the South African rand are also de facto currencies in Zimbabwe.  Many economists may argue that using the yuan is a good idea to getting around American sanctions.

This is just the latest maneuver by China to further penetrate the African continent through trade and development.  According to the International Monetary Fund, of the 20 countries worldwide projected to grow the fastest by next year, 10 of them are in Africa.  Africa’s population is also expected to double to 3.5 billion by the 2050.

So it would make sense for China and other countries to make a move on potentially big economic opportunities related to the continent’s rich resources and minerals.  Approximately over a million Chinese people have moved to Africa in the last 10 years alone as part of a new scramble for Africa.  However, many feel that China is doing more harm than good.

Journalist Howard French wrote a book a couple of years called China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building A New Empire in Africa.  He traveled to half a dozen African countries to meet with these Chinese migrants about their motivations.  They work in a wide variety of occupations, including factory owners, farmers and even prostitutes.  Many of them come to Africa because they are either tired of the competitiveness, lack of freedoms and/or lack of economic mobility back in China.    

The book left a really bad taste in my mouth and a fear for the worst.  Many of the Chinese interviewees sounded the same way European colonizers did during the original Scramble for Africa over a one hundred years ago.  Most of the interviewees speak of Africans in a very racist manner, commonly calling them the derogative hei ren.  

The biggest gripe with the Chinese businesses is that they hire other Chinese workers – not African workers – to construct big development projects in Africa.  The Chinese businesses say they do this because they feel the Africans are not smart enough, childish, and don’t eat bitter, or work as hard as the Chinese.  Then when Africans are hired for jobs, they are paid low wages with very limited benefits and in dangerous environments. But many of these problems stem from African governments allowing Chinese business to come into their countries while ignoring their labor laws.

It seems like China is setting up these African countries to be totally dependent on them by just hiring only Chinese workers.  It would be more valuable for the continent to practice capacity building, where they train Africans to build and maintain their own infrastructure.  Sure, American aid and development projects in Africa have also been known to have shady, ulterior motives in the past as well, including most recently with PEPFAR, but at least Americans mostly hires Africans to work on African projects.  Even when I work on any media development projects in Africa, we make a conscious effort to hire locals because the whole point of development is all about, in my opinion, “ teaching someone how to fish.”

There is also a Chinese presence throughout the Caribbean.  In Jamaica, where my family is from, there have been similar complaints about Chinese development projects, mostly in the tourism sector with resorts.  Recently I was in Kingston and I noticed that the Chinese community self-segregates themselves from other Jamaicans and don’t usually hire locals in their businesses.  Jamaicans that are hired are treated poorly.  Because of this there is growing hostility towards the Chinese migrant community.  A Jamaican friend once told me, “We have replaced British colonization and exploitation with the Chinese.  They are only here to exploit us.”

What is most interesting about the Zimbabwe situation is that introducing Chinese currency into the country’s economy takes the Chinese neo-colonialist agenda to a whole new level.  China, a country that has a long rap sheet of human rights abuses, is hooking up with Zimbabwe, another country with serious human rights problems. Furthermore, despite the fact that he has been an egomaniacal despot in recent years, Mugabe was originally a freedom fighter 40 years ago who helped Zimbabwe become a free country.  Now it feels it feels like the country is moving back into colonialism.   

Ghanaian business executive Ed Brown said the best quote in French’s book:

“This [relationship] is going to be determine Africa’s future for the next fifty years.  This big question is whether African countries are dynamic enough to take advantage, or whether they’ll end up being the appendage of somebody else all over again.”