I once worked on an ad for a baby product. As my art director was putting together some comps for internal review, she decided to put a stock photo of a black baby in one ad. There were no ulterior motives, no creative brief mandates—just that the black baby was cute and we rarely saw them in the publications the ad was going to appear in. We thought the ad would “cut through the clutter” as the cliché goes.
As we presented the comps internally, our AE objected to the image. “Well, I don’t know if they are a large percentage of who our audience is.” The “they” being black parents. In other words, the AE was convinced that an ad prominently featuring a black baby would only appeal to black people.
I bring this up because right now, our nation is challenging conventional race and gender notions, the kind of conversation which the advertising industry prefers to avoid.
Part of the reason for advertising’s reticence, of course, is fear. By that, I’m talking about the agency’s fear of the client’s fear. In my career I’ve heard a few times, as excuses, that the client is a closet bigot. Or that the client is a man who doesn’t respect women. Or that the client is a woman who has a problem with men. Whatever the personal idiosyncrasy is, it means “they’re never gonna go for it.” And so, the agency can’t afford to raise the blood pressure of whoever pays the bills.
It’s not hard to understand this mentality. People most identify with and relate to other people who look like them or share their backgrounds. There’s a comfort level there. But this is mass marketing. The world, and the marketplace, is an uncomfortable one. We have to sell products and services to other people who are not like us.
Decades of market research and focus groups have killed off our ability to treat consumers as individuals, or humans. If the intended audience doesn’t fit into a convenient demographic category, we don’t know what to do with them. It’s not something can be solved with 50 versions of a microtargeted banner ad or e-mail. People simply aren’t predictable in their purchasing behavior, no matter how much careful research and planning we do.
So how long will the advertising industry keep trying to sell work to people who think just like we do? How long will we keep giving awards and rewards for creative work that speaks primarily to us?
The ad industry doesn’t innovate. We lag behind. You only have to watch the news to see the old delineations and definitions crumbling.
It’s possible the next President could be a Harvard-educated, half-white, half-black Christian son of an Kenyan Muslim man, who was raised by his white mother and grandparents in Indonesia and Hawaii. How would you market a product to him? Does he fit into any target audience description you’ve ever seen on a creative brief? Could you make any assumptions about him based on that profile?
The best ad concepts require a leap of faith, and often a leap beyond logic. But most of us in the advertising industry are not prepared to be so nimble. That’s right – we’re not prepared.
The overwhelming majority of advertising agencies don’t attract the best and brightest minds. Or the most innovative and forward-thinking. The small fraction of outstanding work we do is lost in the sea of mediocre work, which then permeates the mindset of clients and consumers. They’re accustomed to what’s conventional, and we’ve become accustomed to deliver it.
But conventional thinking isn’t in vogue this year. I’ve heard, among other things, that today’s young voters don’t see “race” or “gender” in this Presidential election. Maybe, maybe not. But these voters are also consumers. And whether the majority of voters opt for change or not, it’s a daily reality for those of us in advertising and marketing.
Markets are changing. Media is changing. And change isn’t easy. It’s not going to be enough for ad professionals to understand what changes are taking place. Rather, the key to our success will be knowing how to turn those changes into strategies, messages, and advertising that will benefit our clients.
All of which brings me back to that black baby in the comp. I don’t know if that baby would be a more acceptable choice if America elected a black President or came very close to electing one. But I’d like to think so.
After all, advertising professionals have been sometimes called “mirror makers” for our ability to hold up a mirror to the people. Yes, we have that power. But we can’t hold a mirror up to the people if we can’t keep up with where the people are headed.