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.”