Multicultural Marketing and Its Impact on African American Identity

The value of African Americans as consumers in market was related to white Americans’ perceptions of blacks in general and corporate America’s regard for Africans’ purchasing power. Rossman argues that marketers who strive to understand the dynamics of ethnics and other market segmentations, developing product and market strategies that will appeal to these groups, will undoubtedly make a profit (Rossman 994: 18). Perhaps most important, Rossman explains that the meanings of marketing go from “the satisfaction of needs and wants at a reasonable price” to “a total system of interacting business activities to plan, price, promote, and distribute want-satisfying products and services to household and organizational users at a profit.” There are other definitions equally mind- numbing. They all come down to the same thing: stimulate interest, create desire, and get the consumer to buy (19—20).

From the eighteenth century to the first fifty years of the twentieth, advertising agencies virtually ignored African American consumers, because white entrepreneurs thought that pitching their products to black consumers risked blurring their products’ image with mainstream consumers. Advertising was limited to white America as advertisers felt that white Americans had the economic power to obtain the advertised products. African American consumers were appreciated by the advertising industry immediately following World War II because advertisers recognized that black consumers had the economic power and enterprise like white consumers. Herman Gray explains that during the early 1930s African Americans did spend a large amount of money which became certain after numerous surveys were conducted (Gray 1986). Statistics showed that even though African Americans were at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, they were still large contributors to the economy. A study by the National Negro Business League in the 1930s revealed that African American consumers’ spending power was $1.65 billion dollars (AdAge 2003). Marketers failed to design and implement advertisement that was aimed at African Americans, considering their impressive spending power.

The representation of African American images that would appeal to black consumers began at marginal, demeaning, and erroneous level. For example,

“One of the most pervasive myths is that almost all blacks are poor, so it’s not worth targeting them. Of course, there are poor African-Americans; many studies show that poor blacks are poorer today than before” (Rossman 1994: 122—23). It is no surprise then that when African American consumers were finally incorporated in the advertising industry in the early 1930s, the advertising industry still used negative images to depict blacks. These stereotypical characterizations of African Americans emanated from white ideology. From the 1940s through 1960s, only a few African Americans had leading positive roles in advertisements.

The Civil Rights Movement critically changed the ways African Americans were depicted in the mass media systems and in the advertising industry, particularly. According to Robert Baker and Sandra Ball, a report by the Kerner Commission showed the effects of the mass media on the sociological and psychological disposition of the domination and subordinate cultures. It showed that daily repetition of commercials and programs has impressed on African American families that they are have-nots (Baker & Ball 1969). During and immediately following the Civil Rights struggle, African Americans demanded that the mass media accurately portray them in real life situations as wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, workers, and family members. Like the dominant majority, African Americans wanted to be depicted as a people who have aspirations, desires, and needs in contemporary American society.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, African Americans were given adjunct roles as well as roles in group pictures, a process defined by Roland Barthes (1957) as inoculation, in which advertisers or other capitalist consumer systems incorporate small elements of ethnicity into the media. During this period, corporations marketed products to African American consumers in the black print and broadcast media that were often harmful to the well-being of individuals and the community as a whole. The prevalence of advertising for alcohol and tobacco was eventually attacked by educated African American elites; rampant alcoholism and tobacco use were seen as vices that threatened to destroy the quality of life in black families led to campaigns to reject sponsorship of corporations that sold those products. A billion dollar industry, hair and skin care products were marketed with the European idea of beauty, pushing blacks to use harmful chemicals to assimilate and adapt a negative image based on self-hatred. The marketing of luxury items such as Cadillacs, while appropriate for the small group of middle class blacks, also influenced poor urban black communities to engage in splurging.

When the Cosby Show appeared, Bill Cosby through his influence and power had major sponsors, including Kraft Foods, the manufacturer of Jell-O pudding. Cosby became the spokesperson for Jell-O and appeared in a series of television commercials with an ethnically diverse group of children. These images started the fundamental turn for more positive images of African Americans in advertisements. Rossman cites U.S. Census figures that

around 60 percent of black households in 1990 had incomes of less than $25,000, compared to 40 percent of white households. However, only about one third of blacks are poor; two thirds are above the Census Bureau’s poverty threshold index for 1991. Studies also show that the middle- and upper-income segments of the black community have grown enormously in the past ten years. More than 13 percent of households headed by blacks have incomes of $50,000 or more. And, in this highly segmented market, even people with lower incomes buy and use goods and services (1994: 123).

The demand by African American consumers for inclusive advertising where the identities of multiethnic groups, including African Americans, are recognized and respected is quite compelling. As Rossman writes, African Americans are a large, enterprising and growing market, representing about 32 million people, with close to $300 billion in spending power. Although blacks are generating more income, they strive to maintain their “African American identity” and not become like white consumers; African Americans are not consistently brand loyal, for they are what Rossman calls “a highly subsegmented and stratified market” (124, 126). She notes that “Many upscale African-Americans buy private-label and generic goods, which are less expensive than brand names. The proliferation of discount and cut-price stores and warehouse clubs has popularized generics and bulk buying” (126). In this marketing milieu,

Some members of the black lower class are more responsive to marketing campaigns that stress images of black unity and Afrocentric identity over all other issues. On the other hand, middle-class and upscale African-Americans’ increased pride in black culture is not usually a major factor in their purchasing decisions (141).

Previously, African Americans who wanted recognition sometimes imitated upper-class members of the mainstream culture through “conspicuous consumption of goods usually associated with wealth” (141). For example, African Americans on the lower economic rung of American society tend to depict wealth by purchasing expensive cars, clothing, and other luxury items. Michele Lamont and Virag Molnar (2001) argue that “Marketing specialists believe that blacks use consumption to signify and acquire equality, respect, acceptance and status” (36):

Marketers interpret the buying habits of blacks as strongly guided by a desire to be recognized as equal and full participating members of society and to disprove the stereotype of blacks as belonging to an underclass deprived of buying power. This desire is manifested in distinct consumption patterns: in comparison to whites, blacks spend disproportionately more on items that they view as affirming their equal standing (36).

Understanding the African American community and the racist ideas that sanction its oppression provides only a partial explanation for the persistence of stereotypical images of African Americans in the mass media, of which advertising is a part. As I have previously stated, the exploitation of African American images evolved from the period of enslavement and is not a new phenomenon, but rather a reappearance of a classic social control strategy by the dominant majority (those who control the political, economic, and cultural power) in the United States. To perpetuate their dominance, they must argue very convincingly for the marginalization and stereotypical characterizations of African Americans, thus undermining their African American identity. Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin contend that there are two methods of “disseminating and maintaining social control”: (1) instituting repressive state apparatuses (RSAs) and (2) instituting ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) that are usually prevalent in an unequal society. The RSAs use the military, police force, and various forms of terrorism to gain social control through oppressive and violent means. IRAs involves “non-violent social formations such as schools, the family, the church, and the media institutions that shape and represent our culture in certain ways” (Benshoff & Griffin 2004: 13—14). We argue that both methods have been used by the dominant majority, at one point or the other in the United States, to marginalize African Americans. Mass media institutions such as film, radio, television, newspapers, and advertising industries are especially potent because of their large and receptive audiences. The overwhelming presence of derogatory or comical images of the black community portrayed through advertising and other mass media outlets undermines African American identity as equal and civilized citizens of our society. “And as long as Blacks feel secondary to whites, Blacks never can become first class—because they can’t ‘become white’” (Gordon 1985: 7. It is important to note with Thomas Cripps, that “black media stereotypes are not natural, much less harmless, products of an idealized popular culture; rather, they are more commonly socially constructed images that are selective, partial, one-dimensional, and distorted in their portrayal of African Americans” (Cripps 1993: 5).

I also believe that advertising is acutely powerful because it offers pictures full of colors, shapes, body language (when people are depicted), words, signs, and all kinds of things we find in our society. For example, in a commercial that shows a man in a pin-striped suit drinking a fresh cup of coffee, we immediately make assumptions about who he is, where he comes from and where he is going as well as lifestyle is he living. If we leaf through a magazine and see a head shot of a white, blonde woman wearing bright red lipstick, we would critique her attractiveness and draw conclusions based on the emotions “red” might evoke (aggression, passion). Contemporary African American stereotypes are not hard to find as long as people train themselves to decode the media messages. To illustrate, many bill?boards and business houses that sell their products to the African American community use stereotypical images to advertise. According to these advertisements, African Americans value instant gratification and conspicuous consumption over more conventional things, including good education. Ascribing these traits to African Americans is inaccurate and unjust and it poses a national identity crisis for African Americans and other Americans.

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