The Big Whitewash

After 13 years as a copywriter, I’ve noticed three perennial constants: 1) an increasing number of failing ad campaigns and marketing strategies, and a growing number of confused and frustrated clients, colleagues and ad critics; 2) the increasing cultural and ethnic diversity in America; and 3) the mind-numbing lack of ethnic and cultural diversity within the ad industry.

Here’s a shot in the dark: Has it crossed anyone’s mind that a big reason so many marketers still struggle to reach our diversifying consumer base is because we’re less and less like them than ever before?

We talk a lot about how media-savvy consumers have become, but we sidestep the obvious fact that they’ve also gotten blacker, more Mexican, more Puerto Rican, more Chinese, more Korean, more Ethiopian, more Colombian, more Jamaican, etc. And with this has come more definitions of what’s cool, what’s sexy, what’s beautiful, what’s relevant, what’s heartwarming, what’s human and, more important, what ideas can and should build a brand.

But sadly, as a black creative, I can tell you that even in 2005, the ad industry’s idea of diversity remains blondes, brunettes, redheads, plus openly gay versions thereof. In fact, when I freelance at general-market shops, I’m usually the only black person around (sans secretaries, of course). General-market shops remain well over 90 percent Caucasian—or much more, depending on the market. It’s precisely this continued whitewash that’s hurting our ability to connect our clients’ brands with an increasingly diverse marketplace.

Again, how do you “think out of the box” when you’ve hired nothing but boxes?

To remix John Edwards, there’s a different America out there: They never loved Raymond. They never got Friends, Seinfeld or Sex and the City. They still don’t get SNL or According to Jim. Their musical tastes aren’t shaped by Rolling Stone, TRL or even BET. They don’t trust Fox. They don’t shop at Banana Republic or Gap. Their ideal female isn’t in Cosmo or Playboy. (And quiet as it’s kept, they dismiss Dove’s “Real Women” as an attempt to capitalize on the zeitgeist of white women’s insecurities, despite their being propped up as the standard of feminine beauty since day one.) This America rarely golfs and will never ever drive 500 miles in a circle, much less watch others do it.

(By the way: This America is not white.)

By 2010, black consumers will spend some $920 billion annually, Latinos nearly $1 trillion and Asians some $525 billion. By 2040, 50 percent of Americans will be non-Caucasian.

Now, how can an ad community whose diversity reflects Will & Grace on its best day simply “research” its way into this America’s heart or pocketbook? I guess we can rely on so-called universal truths, provided they really are universal.

In 2004, marketers spent less than 4 percent of marketing dollars (an all-time high, no less) through multicultural agencies and media outlets. It’s just a matter of time before ethnic professionals realize that general-market shops are more barriers than bridges. Once they do, they’ll stop begging for slices of the pie and start baking their own. They’ll reach everyone the general-market shops ignored, offended or just bored to tears. And eventually, general-market clients will follow, because love (of money) conquers all.

Ultimately, general-market shops will be left to do what we’ve done for the last 80 years—make excuses for our institutionalized bias and exclusion. Because at the end of the day, the only thing more obvious than our problem is the solution. And our refusal to be a part of the solution.

Hadji Williams is an agency veteran and author of “Knock the Hustle: How to Save Your Job and Your Life From Corporate America.” He can be reached at author@knockthehustle.com.