How Close Is Post-Racial America?

How does the fact of a black man as president affect the attitudes of African Americans — and, by extension, the way they react to advertising these days? A year into Barack Obama’s presidency, several recent surveys have gauged black respondents’ thinking on topics ranging from race relations to personal economic outlook. Here, we take a look at the numbers and (with an assist from some experts in the field) at the implications the findings have for marketing to African-American consumers.

The hope that Obama’s ascension to the presidency would bring an improvement in race relations has diminished but not vanished over the past year among African Americans. In ABC News/Washington Post polling in January 2009, 75 percent of black respondents said they saw an Obama presidency helping race relations in the U.S. In polling last month on the same question, the number had declined to 51 percent. Likewise, while 20 percent last January said they believed “blacks have achieved racial equality,” the number had fallen to 11 percent this January.

A pair of CNN/Opinion Research Corp. polls yielded a similar pattern when asking whether the U.S. has “fulfilled the vision” outlined by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I have a dream” speech. Last January 69 percent of black respondents said the country had done so, but the figure had fallen to 55 percent in a poll this past December. Over roughly the same period, though, the ABC News/Washington Post polling found an uptick (from 64 percent to 70 percent) in the proportion of black respondents saying Obama’s election “represents progress for all blacks in America more generally” rather than just the triumph of one man.

And if one compares the current outlook with that of a year as recent as 2007 (i.e., when the election of a black man as president still seemed a distant fantasy), the shift in attitudes is significant. In late 2007, CNN polling found 49 percent of black respondents answering affirmatively when asked whether they think “race relations in this country will ever get better than they are.” In the poll this past December, 75 percent expressed that positive view. NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling found a similar upturn in the proportion of black respondents agreeing, “America is a nation where people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In January 2008, 50 percent “strongly disagreed” that the country had achieved that goal, a figure that fell to 32 percent in last month’s polling. The number who agreed with the statement (whether “strongly” or “somewhat”) had risen from 29 percent to 40 percent.

The ‘Post-Racial’ Sales Pitch
Never shy about latching onto societal trends that might help put a sales pitch across, marketers have been cranking out advertising that displays people of various races and ethnicities happily hanging out together. Do these images of a “post-racial” America ring true with black consumers? Not unless the brand has done more than insert a few non-white faces into the mix. “African Americans recognize when an ad is or is not culturally relevant to them,” says Allen Pugh, vice chairman of ad agency GlobalHue Africanic. Black consumers will appreciate that such advertising has made the effort to be “inclusive,” he adds, but they won’t view it as realistic.

Lewis Williams, evp, CCO at Burrell Communications, looks askance at the whole notion that the Obama presidency has ushered in a “post-racial” society and thus made such ads seem authentic to black consumers. “It really amazes me, this term ‘post-racial,'” he says. “It sort of just popped up over night. I have never heard a black person use this term. From most black folks’ perspective, if it was contrived a year and a half ago, it is just as contrived now. We are a very authentic people. We believe in ‘keeping it real.’ And to cast a multicultural cast just for the sake of it, with no insight, still doesn’t ring true. Never did, never will.”
Sonya Grier, a marketing professor at American University’s Kogod School of Business, suggests there’s a generational aspect to how African-American consumers will react to such advertising. “Youth of all races and ethnicities appear to lead a more ‘multicultural’ lifestyle,” says Grier, whose areas of academic research include race in the marketplace. “So such ads would not seem as contrived to the black consumers in that generation and mind-set as they might to a black consumer who lives a more ‘segregated’ lifestyle.”

Real Reality vs. Media Reality
For adults, there’s a limit to how much those post-racial images will seem to reflect reality. “Despite the media depictions of multicultural worlds, it is not the reality most adults confront, especially in terms of life outside of work,” says Grier. “For example, African Americans are more likely than any other U.S. ethnic group to live in racially segregated neighborhoods, even when you include suburban neighborhoods.”

Anyhow, in viewing ads, it’s not as though black consumers expect to see black faces all the time. “As a minority, blacks are more used to interracial environments,” says Grier, “and blacks have generally found some type of resonance with all types of ads, i.e., ads that don’t feature African Americans, as not all products and services come via ‘targeted marketing.’ In marketing parlance, black consumers are used to being in the ‘non-target market.’ They will respond to white ads, interracial ads, etc., if the product, service or ad content is of relevance or otherwise compelling.”

The mere presence of black people in ads likely matters less than the way in which they are presented. “Often, in the past, while there might be greater numbers of blacks in ads, whether multicultural or multiracial, blacks were accorded subordinate or stereotypical roles in the ads,” says Grier. “Now, we should expect (or at least hope) to see ads that give black consumers more respect, even in multicultural settings.”

The ‘Optimism Gap’
If black consumers dismiss the notion that the country has undergone a sudden transformation due to the fact of having a black man as president, they nonetheless exhibit optimism about the direction things are taking. Indeed, something of an optimism gap has opened up between black and white Americans, at least as measured in a year-end The Economist/YouGov survey. When asked if they’re “optimistic or pessimistic about what kind of year 2010 will be for you and your family,” 37 percent of black respondents (vs. 13 percent of whites) declared themselves “very optimistic.” Elsewhere in the same poll, African Americans were much more likely than whites (47 percent vs. 28 percent) to say they think “the economy is getting better.” And 56 percent of African Americans, vs. 31 percent of whites, said they think “Americans will be better off financially in 10 years than they are today.”

Does this greater degree of optimism mean black consumers will be more receptive than their white counterparts to advertising that adopts an upbeat tone instead of (as some ads now do) trying to internalize the gloom of a recession? “People want to hear good news, generally,” says Grier. “Black consumers should be no different.” She adds that some black consumers “may be more accustomed to hearing bad news, or seeing less-than-positive self-representations in the news and other media.” And that could have the effect of making such consumers more receptive to ads that are optimistic in tone, particularly among black people “who feel more upbeat about the future.”

Williams also sees a deep pattern of personal experience at work. “We as a people in order to survive have always had to see the glass as half full,” he says. “Always hope for a better future. That is why religion as well as comedy play such a huge part in our culture. The next life has to be better than this one. This one is so bad, ‘I have to laugh to keep from crying.’ So circumstances have designed us to always look for a brighter day.”

Pugh notes that the recession has hit black communities especially hard. But he places this fact in the context of a history of resilience. “We’re survivors,” he notes. And this informs the way black consumers react to ads, even in hard times. “Overall, I think African Americans are receptive to positive ads,” says Pugh. Coming from “a hard place” like the current downturn, he says, black consumers appreciate a positive message. Still, what matters more than optimism or pessimism is relevance to the consumer’s needs. “You have to talk about the brand benefits,” says Pugh. “People are looking for answers. That’s what will move the needle.”

Seeing a Racial Convergence
While people of any ethnicity are influenced by their own distinctive experience when it comes to consumer behavior, a Pew Research Center poll released last month finds black (and white) respondents perceiving a convergence in outlook among people of different races. One question in the survey (fielded in November) asked respondents whether they think there’s “a wider gap or a narrower gap between black people and white people in their standard of living” compared to 10 years ago. Fifty-six percent of black respondents said they think the gap has narrowed, vs. 33 percent saying it has widened. (The rest said it hasn’t changed or declined to offer an opinion.)

The Pew poll elicited a similar pattern of response when it asked whether “the values held by black people and the values held by white people have become more similar or more different” in the past 10 years. Sixty percent of black respondents said values of the two cohorts had grown more similar during that period, vs. 34 percent saying they’d become more different.

And if the Pew survey found black and white people becoming more similar in these respects, it also found many black respondents perceiving a growing class divide within the country’s black population. When asked whether they think “middle class and poor African Americans share values in common,” 22 percent of black respondents answered “a lot in common” and 44 percent “some in common.” Twenty-four percent said the two groups have “only a little in common” and 7 percent “almost nothing in common.” If there is such a divide, it’s seen by many to be widening. Fifty-three percent of this poll’s black respondents said they think the values held by middle-class and poor black people have become “more different” during the past 10 years, vs. 40 percent saying they’ve become “more similar.”

But Differences Endure
However, none of this means that the black American identity has been diluted, even as it has grown more varied. “No matter how big or small the gap is between black and whites in the standard of living,” says Williams, “our experiences will be different. This shapes how we respond to messages. … We are different in how we use language, and our tastes differ in fashion and music. So in any message where you really are serious about touching the heart and soul of a black consumer, you really have to have lived and breathed the same experiences.”

The Pew findings hint at a point made by all three of the people interviewed for this story: Marketers must keep in mind that the term “black consumers” refers not to a single type of person but to an aggregation of many different sorts of people. As Pugh puts it, “It’s not just one monolithic group.” More than ever, he says, marketers must be alive to the nuances that distinguish various kinds of consumers within the black population.

Grier makes a similar point: “As the population grows, marketers, and society in general, increasingly recognize that there are segments within the black population who feel, accept and use their ‘blackness’ in their attitudes and behaviors in different amounts and ways.” And, she adds, that’s leaving aside the fact that different ethnic groupings — “African Americans, Caribbean Americans, black Latinos, African immigrants, etc.” — fall under the “black consumer” umbrella. “Generally, societal trends such as increased cross-ethnic marriage, immigration, changes in youth mind-sets, ‘normalization’ of non-traditional lifestyles, etc., are prompting multiple identifications, individual remaking of identity and a blurring of lines between distinct target segments such as ‘black’ and ‘white,'” says Grier.

Rather than be daunted by such complexities, marketers would do well to embrace them. “It is more necessary to think about the multiple identities people bring to bear, including (not ignoring) their race,” says Grier. “If you can speak to someone on multiple levels (my blackness, my femaleness, etc.), your marketing efforts are more likely to resonate and move me toward the promoted behavior.”

Beyond ‘Check the Box’ Marketing
In this sort of complex environment, marketers cannot hope to engage black consumers (or any subset thereof) with a once-a-year genuflection in their direction on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday or during Black History Month. As Pugh puts it, savvier marketers know they must do more than merely “check the box” with a dutiful round of ads around those dates.

That’s not to say marketers are incapable of linking themselves successfully to such occasions, though, and doing so in ways that seem relevant to younger black consumers. Indeed, emphasizes Williams, such marketing has evolved over the years. “Messages are no longer about the past, but who is making history today and beyond,” he says. “Acknowledging the past, but looking to the future and looking for ways to help navigate it. Black history is just as relevant today as it has always been. Just because we have a black president does not mean ‘mission accomplished.’ We are far from that.”

See also:

“How to Reach Affluent African Americans”

“Q&A: GlobalHue’s Don Coleman”

“Multicultural Agency of the Decade”