The Cultural Divide

Is multiculturalism “the new black”? Multicultural casting in general-market ads is in vogue. Affluent Americans in banking and finance spots “happen” to be black or Latino. Multicultural clusters of young people “hang” in cell-phone, car and soft-drink ads. NBA stars pop up on urban-street courts to bust a few spectacular moves.

But scratch the surface and you’ll usually find the sensibilities of a white guy, because that’s who’s doing most of the writing. Without a true understanding of the consumers it depicts, multiculturalism in general-market advertising takes on the appearance of a passing style, like the “Americana” movement of the Reagan years or the sarcasm, belch and irony school of the dot-com blip. Unlike those trends, however, multiculturalism has its origins in an inexorable and enduring change in America’s composition.

If you live in New York or Los Angeles, it’s readily apparent that the browning of America is here to stay. Instead of an ethnic or racial majority, there is a messy, lively agglomeration of “minorities,” including the white minority. Walk into a major general-market agency and it’s equally apparent that the ad industry has a lot of catching up to do. Just how well can a white industry speak to an increasingly brown country?

Advertisers and agencies categorize multicultural consumers by lifestyle, life stage, ZIP code, income, mind-set or any measure that’s better understood than race or ethnicity. In their advertising, what it means and what it takes to become an affluent African American is irrelevant. Inner-city blacks and Latinos are morphed into “urban” beings without roots. Hip-hop, a prolific culture that derives from a black, self-described ghetto aesthetic, is distilled to a rainbow-hued party with a DJ scratching to a rap-music track. Male adolescence becomes a basketball-driven cliché. Advertising could solve this by hiring people who understand these consumers because they are these consumers. Instead, it usually settles for symbolism and formula. Formulas give rise to fads.

The change in America is no fad. In the privacy of their homes, white viewers in the heartland often watch black- and Latino-oriented shows, movies and networks, presumably because they find them entertaining. Meanwhile, mainstream advertising shortchanges itself by creating work based on the superficial knowledge that accompanies a homogeneous workplace. Witness the fact that, in an InterMedia Advertising Group survey, some of the highest-scoring ads for “likability” with the general audience are actually targeted at African Americans and mostly run on targeted media.

A campaign like “Whassup?” owes its existence to hip-hop culture, an African American film and a white ad team’s appreciation of both. How many more brilliant, authentic campaigns would there be if agencies had creatives like Charles Stone? How much more robust would the strategies behind them become if the planners, researchers and account managers had a genuine cultural perspective? If multicultural America were as transient as fashion, advertising might be able to get by on surface symbols, slick imagery and high production values. But the change in our society is way too real for that.

I’m sometimes asked why I bother to try to diversify the ad industry. Doesn’t its lack of color work in favor of multicultural shops? The answer is simple: Diversity works in everyone’s favor. When the industry acknowledges the vibrant contribution of diverse cultures, it will see talent and opportunity everywhere. Bold moves like the appointment of African American Ann Fudge to lead Young & Rubicam will seem logical and evolutionary. The creativity that enlivens the world will become apparent to the ad industry. Multicultural staffs will make agencies more relevant, creative and effective.

But treat diversity as an option or multiculturalism as a trend that will pass and advertising itself may become as irrelevant and outdated as last year’s must-have color.