VOLUME 28 NO. 11 | MARCH 7- MARCH 13, 2009

More TV ads project images of racial harmony

Last updated 3-5-09 at 2:54 p.m.

By Todd Lewan

Ever see an inner-city schoolyard filled with white, Asian, and Black teens shooting hoops? Or middleaged white and Latino men swigging beer and watching the Super Bowl on their Black neighbor’s couch? Or Asians and Latinos dancing the night away in a hip-hop club?

All it takes is a television.

Think about one of Pepsi’s newest spots, “Refresh Anthem,” which debuted during the Super Bowl. The ad, which features Bob Dylan and hip-hop producer will.i.am, is a collage of images from the ’60s and today that celebrates generations past and present.

Whites and Blacks are shown returning from war, surfing, skateboarding, dancing, and waving American flags at political rallies, while a boyish Dylan and a present-day will.i.am take turns singing the Dylan classic, “Forever Young,” each in their respective signature style.

Or, take the latest hit spot from E*TRADE, which stars the E*TRADE baby, a 9-month-old white boy, and his newest buddy — a Black infant who, from his own highchair, agrees with the wisdom of online investing even in a down economy.

Ads like these are part of a subtle, yet increasingly visible strategy that marketers refer to as “visual diversity” — commercials that enable advertisers to connect with wider audiences while conveying a message that corporate America is not just “in touch,” racially speaking, but inclusive.

For much of the past century, “minorities were either invisible in mainstream media or handed negative roles that generally had them in a subservient position,” says Jerome Williams, a professor of advertising and African American studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Today, you’re starting to see a juxtaposition of Blacks and whites together, doing the things people do … Now, advertisers are not in a position of pushing social justice. But to the extent that they can put whites and Blacks together in situations, I think that’s a good thing.”

To advertisers, these “multiculti” ads are simply smart business — a recognition of a new cultural mainstream that prizes diversity, a recognition that we are fast approaching a day when the predominant hue in America will no longer be white.

“Going forward, all advertising is going to be multicultural by definition, because in most states, majority ethnic populations will no longer exist,” said Danny Allen, managing director at SENSIS, an ad agency in Los Angeles that specializes in reaching multicultural audiences through digital and online media.

And yet, some critics wonder if depicting America as a racial nirvana today may have an unintended downside — that of airbrushing out of the public consciousness the economic and social chasms that still separate whites, Blacks, and Latinos.

Even on Madison Avenue, which is generating the inclusive messages, recent studies find few nonwhites in decision-making and creative positions within the advertising industry itself.

Are multiculti ads, then, an accurate barometer of our racial progress, a showcase of our hopes in that direction — or a reminder of how far we still have to go?

Whites still hold most of the economic clout in the United States — 85.5 percent of the nation’s annual buying power of $10 trillion, according to a 2007 study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.

In recent years, though, marketers have been revising old assumptions and campaigns in anticipation of profound shifts in the nation’s demographics and in reaction to changes already underway in what the Selig Center describes as “the Multicultural Economy.”

They note that Black buying power has risen from $318 billion in 1990 to $845 billion in 2007 — a 166 percent gain. The whites’ buying power rose 124 percent during that period, while the economic clout of Latinos rose by 307 percent, to $862 billion, over that span.

The Black population grew 27 percent from 1990 to 2007, compared to 15 percent for whites and 21 percent overall. And the percentage of multiracial citizens, though just 1.6 percent of America’s 302 million people, is swelling at 10 times the rate of white population growth.

If current trends continue, demographers say, nonwhites will be in the majority in America by 2042 — a prospect not lost on advertisers, says Melanie Shreffler, editor of Marketing to the Emerging Majorities, an industry newsletter.

Marketers “aren’t turning out multicultural ads for the good of society,” says Shreffler. “They recognize there is money involved.” (end)


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