Race, Nostalgia, and Our Deep Thirst for Advertising

Advertising is like a shit and sugar pie. So, so sweet, as long as you don't think about what's going into it. And everyone wants a bigger piece. Who are any of us to say that someone should not have more shit and sugar pie? They might regret it, but we've been sucking it down for years.

The ad industry has all of the big budgets of Hollywood and all the manic news focus of the media, but, unlike those industries, nobody goes out of their way to congratulate ad people on all of their hard work. So the industry must constantly congratulate itself. Advertising takes a backseat to no one in the sheer number of annual awards ceremonies and self-focused conferences it showers upon itself, in an effort to let itself know that it is appreciated. Right now it's Advertising Week, five full days of panel discussions, parties, and awards presentations in New York—not to be confused with Creative Week, a different five days of panel discussions, parties, and awards presentations. Most of these things, of course, are indistinguishable. "Marketing Gurus Climbing the Mountain of Brands: Cross Platform Creativity in the Age of Digital Darwinism," or whatever. But Thursday, Advertising Week thoughtfully had a separate "Multicultural Track," featuring discussions of advertising among people who are not white. Is the shit and sugar pie big enough to share?

As in much of corporate America, "diversity" in advertising means "people who are not white, but who have been to Harvard Business School." The 9 a.m. panel, at the Liberty Theater in Times Square, featured two HBS grads: Seneca Mudd, who wore a pinstripe suit jacket, red pocket square, and no tie, and Steven Pereira, who wore a pinstripe suit jacket, red pocket square, and a red tie. Diversity. Mudd was most notable for his ability to fill his speech so completely with jargon that it almost circled back around to normality. "Top line... one of the points of convergence is this idea of 'Mobile First'... surround sound around the consumer... the consumer is so promiscuous... different levels of consumption, from snacking to gorging." Pereira was notable for the fact that he had a high-up role in Wal-Mart's advertising hierarchy, and was happy to share factoids gleaned from his experience with the retail behemoth, each more terrifying than the last.

Did you know that Wal-Mart has 22 million Facebook fans, a number equal to the population of Australia? It's true. Pereira hinted breezily at the day, coming up soon, when Wal-Mart would start buying media or technology companies, because Wal-Mart is, after all, its own media and technology company, so why not? "There's a whole initiative at Wal-Mart called 'Don't Be a Dinosaur,'" said Pereira, at about the same time that Los Angeles Wal-Mart employees were walking out on strike. "And the whole idea is, they don't wanna be dinosaurs."

At one point, keeping to the day's theme, Pereira noted that "One hundred percent of retail growth is coming from multicultural customers... and we are putting our dollars behind" advertising to them. At this, the moderator interjected, "Alright!" drawing scattered applause throughout the room.

Applause for what? Have the non-white people of America been so neglected for so long that the mere acquiescence of a business to make money off them deserves a raucous cheer? The answer is yes. At the 11 o'clock session, "She's Gotta Have It: Black Women, Their Money, Their Mindset, and Their Motivators," Cynthia Perkins-Roberts—black woman and specialist in marketing to black women—started out by mocking Hanna Rosin's breathless "End of Men" proclamations about women putting their men to shame by becoming breadwinners. "Black women are truly trendsetters," said Perkins-Roberts, her voice dripping with sarcasm. She then launched into a Powerpoint presentation comparing black women to white women: black women are far more likely to live alone or to live in a female-headed household, and far less likely to live in a married household (and black married couples are putting off having kids now, probably for economic reasons). Black unemployment has always been higher than white unemployment is now, in the recession.

Onto that rather grim backdrop, the next presenter, marketing consultant Camille Leak, grafted the vital marketing advice: "Black people are not dark skinned white people." Survey data shows that, compared to white women, black women are much more likely to say "I pay close attention to most advertising I hear"—waiting in vain, perhaps, for the message they can call their own. For black women are highly loyal to brands they trust, and a large majority say they want more products and advertisements directed at them. Black women are, in this sense, the anti-Tivo. Most striking of all was this: 84% of black women agree with the statement, "Companies that make a sincere effort to be part of the African-American community deserve my loyalty."

Whether or not you find that sentiment distasteful is a bit of a Marxist Rorschach test. One could argue over any huge corporation makes a "sincere" effort to do anything except "make money," and over whether companies that are little more than notional structures for generating revenue really "deserve" any human emotion at all. For a company, a white dollar and a black dollar and a Latino dollar are all equally desirable. For that reason, there has always been minority-targeted advertising. What this discussion is really about is good minority-targeted advertising. And, functionally speaking, "good" now means not only "less patronizing," but also "being produced by ad people who are, themselves, minorities." The entire "Multicultural" sliver of the ad industry has developed as a sort of tithe that corporations pay to absolve themselves of their racist advertising sins of the past. It's a deal for both sides; black and Latino ad executives, who've historically been hard to come by in the notoriously non-diverse ad industry, get access to corporate dollars, and their very own specific cultural playground/ prison in which to play; and companies get to declare themselves completely insulated from charges of not caring about this or that segment of their customers, in exchange for a negligible sliver of their marketing budget. As an added bonus, good multicultural advertising helps companies achieve a greater market share, meaning they get that tithe back on the back end.

Any wild-eyed purist railing against the poisoned apple of multicultural advertising risks sounding like those anthropologists who bemoan the pollution of pristine Amazon tribes by Western capitalist evils, before retreating back to their air-conditioned American homes. It's not that advertising is bad for black people. It's that advertising is bad for people. If the ad industry wants to market to people in individual groups, we can just run right down the line. Advertising is commerce's equivalent of the wire dummy that scientists give to orphan baby primates to prove that they'll transfer their love to anything. We all want to be loved, even if by an empty vessel—in this case, by a flashy Teddy Ruxpin that will tell us anything in order to sell us another Pepsi.

Perhaps The Great Creative Satan, can find its moral equanimity by deciding to sell to a more enthusiastic audience. (Until their enthusiasm wanes, at least). For now, though, the ad industry has its own Advertising Week celebrating to do, from the Monday night Busta Rhymes concert to the Thursday night wrap party. After a morning of multiculturalism, I crossed 41st St. and entered the Times Center, Advertising Week's base camp, to check on the advertising whites. As I was walking in, a hand tapped my shoulder—a friend from college who I hadn't seen in years was working as an usher. He's a rapper, too, but his Ad Week grind was a little harder than Busta Rhymes'. I went into the auditorium in time to see BuzzFeed chief Jonah Peretti chatting with a GE marketing guy about how Buzzfeed used its OMG and LOL powers of WIN to help GE go VIRAL.

"Nostalgia performs big on Buzzfeed," noted Peretti, as photos of Buzzfeed's GE ad pages, anchored by classic GE ads from the past, flashed on a screen behind him. All of the nostalgia, it must be said—50s-era white families smiling painfully at their new GE appliance and whatnot—was decidedly non-multicultural. But let's not confuse themes here; nostalgic images are for everyone. Positivity. Unity. Advertising. It's all one.

"It touches you in a way that's profound, and deep, and emotional," said Peretti. The screen behind him showed a huge photo of a young Madonna embracing a snarling Vanilla Ice.

[Photo via AP]