Bridging the Divide

A new multicultural model, with advertising as ambassador

The ad industry desperately needs a new model to reach out to multicultural audiences and make up for years of inappropriate messaging. As one Asian American youth told me in a series of focus groups: “If I see one more ad that links Asians to a martial arts theme, I’m going to scream!”

All too often, the creators of multicultural communications are unaware of fundamental differences between how minority and majority audiences are oriented to advertising. The result is that a good deal of the work misfires.

A key difference is that multicultural audiences—comprising America’s minorities—are often significantly more concerned with how others view them. This considerable concern with appearances is driven in large part by the fact that those in the multicultural segments are keenly interested in counteracting negative, erroneous stereotypes, many of which were fostered by the media in the first place.

Why isn’t this even on the radar of those in the majority? Because for the most part they have never been subjected to the indignities of negative stereotyping. As a result, they are much more interested in self-image (i.e., How does this product make me feel about myself?).

Those of us working on the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy came to understand this dynamic during the hundreds of focus groups we conducted. This insight was vividly brought home to us when we spoke with Native American youths about their sense of how they were portrayed in the media. They indicated that not only were the portrayals unflattering and inaccurate, they actually served to reinforce negative stereotypes. Why, they wondered, couldn’t Native Americans be portrayed in a positive light? They stressed that positive portrayals of Native Americans were even more important for the general population than for themselves. This is not just an issue for Native Americans, but for Asian Americans and others.

Why have so many of us been oblivious to this phenomenon? Precisely because our training has encouraged us not to worry about how people outside the immediate target feel about the communication. Moreover, we have been trained to reflect the target in the advertising, to create empathy. Thus, the emphasis in casting has always been on making people accessible rather than aspirational, so the audience can relate to them. Unfortunately, this fosters less embraceable communications because, as we are now learning, many in the multicultural audience don’t want a mirror, they want an ambassador.

All of this suggests a new model for multicultural advertising—one that replaces the linear model (relationship between target and actor) with a triangular model in which the reactions of the outside world are taken into account. We should always take a step back and consider the work in a broader social context—and confirm through research that not only does it not reinforce negative stereotypes but that it goes the extra step to negate them. While avoiding obvious stereotypical depictions is usually not that hard, there are often far more sensitivities at play than those outside the segment are aware of, so some form of vetting should be in order.

Also, qualitative approaches work better than quantitative ones, because the open-ended format allows for these matters to surface in discussions without any prompting or with a little gentle probing. Moreover, if focus groups are employed, they should include only members of the segment being depicted and should be led, if at all possible, by someone from that segment as well. Our experience has shown that race-related issues generally do not surface in mixed settings, mainly out of politeness for others who are present.

As our industry embraces the changing consumer demographic, we need to evolve the way we create our advertising. Change, I’ve found, is always good.