A week ago, thousands of people descended on Washington, and throughout the United States, demanding justice for black men who have been killed by police. Watching demonstrators march down streets chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe,” I had to ask myself if Total Market is still relevant. Or if it ever was.
In July 1967, in Newark, two white policemen arrested and beat a black taxi driver, John Weerd Smith, for improperly passing them on 15th Avenue. After six days of rioting, 26 people were dead, 725 people injured, and nearly 1,500 arrested. While last week’s demonstrations were peaceful, they still beg the question, “How much has changed?”
In response to the riots in Newark, as well as Detroit, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission. Its conclusion: “Our nation is moving towards two societies: one white, one black — separate and unequal.” While our country has made tremendous progress in terms of race relations, a strong argument could be made that minorities and whites continue to live in two worlds.
While this concept may be patently obvious to most Americans, indeed most citizens of the planet, for some reason we marketers are stuck on an idea that relegates cultural differences to the background, while emphasizing that which binds us together. Are we not missing the multicultural boat?
Let’s talk about separate and unequal. According to a just-released Pew Research Center analysis of Federal Reserve data, white households had a median net worth 13 times greater than black households in 2013, compared with eight times greater in 2010. From 2010 to 2013, while white wealth increased 2.4 percent, from $138,600 to $141,900, black household wealth declined of 33.7 percent, from $16,600 to $11,000.
When it comes to our perceptions of social justice, blacks and whites could not be more different. In a 2009 study by Lawrence D. Bobo and Alicia Simons, 61% of Caucasians felt that African Americans have already achieved equality. Only 17% of African Americans agreed.
Nor could we more different in how we view the decision of two grand juries not to indict white police officers in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases.
In the case of Brown, who died in Ferguson, Missouri in an altercation with police officer Darren Wilson, 64% of blacks, compared to only 16% of whites, said race was a major factor in the grand jury’s decision not to indict. In the case of Garner, who died after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in a chokehold, 62% of blacks, compared to 18% of whites, cited race as a major factor in the ruling.
One explanation for the difference in viewpoints was voiced by Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, who died in 2012 in Florida, when neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman shot him. Said Fulton:
It’s not happening to them, so they don’t quite get it… They don’t quite understand. They think that it’s a small group of African-Americans that’s complaining… The people say that all the time: ‘What are they complaining about now? What are they protesting about now?
Until it happens to them and in their family then they’ll understand the walk. They don’t understand what we’re going through. They don’t understand the life and they don’t understand what we’re fighting against. I don’t even think the government quite gets it.
Not surprisingly, African Americans see the world differently than whites when it comes to advertising. A 2013 Nielsen report, “Resilient, Receptive and Relevant,” indicated that:
• 91% of blacks believe that “black media are more relevant to them”;
• 81% believe that “products advertised on black media are more relevant to them”;
• 78% would like to see more black models/actors used in ads.
Of course, it would be a mistake to consider African Americans as consisting of a single, homogenous group. A groundbreaking study in 2007 by Pew Research Center found that nearly four in ten African Americans said that blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race. Additionally, only a quarter felt that middle class and poor blacks share “a lot of values in common.”
In his 2010 book, “Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America”, journalist Eugene Robinson bemoans that instead of one black America, there are now four:
• A mainstream middle-class majority with a full ownership stake in American society;
• A large, abandoned minority with less hope than ever of escaping poverty;
• A small transcendent elite with enormous wealth, power, and influence;
• Two newly emergent groups – individuals of mixed-race heritage and recent black immigrants who question what “black” even means.
The same case should be made for the Hispanic market. When socio-economic differences are added to the panoply of other variables – country of origin, acculturation, political party, gender, age and sexual orientation – could it rightly be said that a Hispanic market even exists?
While a total approach to marketing might seem admirable, and offers the fantasy of economies of scale, in a country divided by so much, an integrated approach, rather than one grounded in cultural differences, hardly seems to fulfill the dream of better connecting with consumers. Yes, a brand’s essence, its personality and messaging, should be unified and consistent. But it is also likely to signify different things to different people.
I am prone to agree with Esther Franklin, who opined in a recent article in the Journal of Advertising Research:
Today’s Total Market efforts are tactical in nature. Based on casting, music, and celebrity ploys, they lag decades behind the strategically grounded, culturally vibrant, winning approaches of a bygone era. These reflections do not represent advancement in multicultural marketing; they are not future-forward and additive; they are reductive and regressive.
In today’s America, racial and ethnic minorities now make up half of those under the age of five. We live in a social environment characterized by fragmentation and polarization. It is time for marketers to step forward with creative and innovative approaches that speak to our differences, not move backwards toward an illusory time when our similarities overshadowed our differences.