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December 7, 2005
Lost in Translation: Why so much multicultural advertising is still so bad

Tom Burrell, founder of Burrell Communications once famously quipped that Black people are not simply "white people with black skins." What he meant was that clients cannot take white creative or concepts developed for white consumers, slap some black faces on it and expect to effectively build long-term relationships with black consumers. Yet in 2005 this is the approach general market agencies continue to take when targeting black and still too often Latino and Asian consumers.

Again the protocol remains the same: The AOR (agency of record) creates an ad campaign based on insights, strategies, and ideas driven by a general market (white) point of view. Next, the client, if interested in reaching an ethnic audience, calls in their 'targeted' agency, which they use as boycott-repellent (i.e. Burrell, Uniworld, Global Hue, Admerasia, CHW, etc.) and essentially says, "Hey can you do a black/Latino/Asian version of this? Oh and we know the AOR had 2 months, but you only have a week..."

The agency (oftentimes begrudgingly) takes the gig, knowing full well the surest way to do hack work is to bite someone else's idea, which is exactly what they've been asked to do. What often follows are a couple of frustrating meetings with the client/AOR where the targeted agency explains that the general market’s insights really don't apply to their particular community and that they’d be better off doing fresh creative/fresh strategies all together, to which the AOR/client often responds, "Yes, but for the sake of synergy, let's stay on message, okay guys? Thanks."

Eventually, the ethnically agency spits out something and into the review process it goes. The AOR/Client sees it. They're uncomfortable with some of the language and the imagery. It's unfamiliar to them. Why? Because as with as least 80% of white Americans, The Client/AOR Folks live in virtually all white neighborhoods (according to the US Census Bureau as of 2003). These concepts are concepts are pretty foreign to them.

"Is this a new trend in your community?" They ask with concerned smiles. You waste the next meeting or so having to convince people who would never hire anyone who looks like you or live near anyone who looks like you that you actually know a little more about your community than they do.

"I think we should focus group this," an AOR exec usually offers up. They then tell you in an offline (sans client) that they think "you guys" are actually brilliant but the client is just "from a different era" and would be much more comfortable with the validation of a room full of complete strangers who will judge your work in a format that it will never actually be viewed in ever again in life.

So, after several focus groups, it's determined by all that the targeted agency would’ve been wise to have translated the general market's creative in the first place. And now with additional client input, this is exactly what happens. And now the work airs:

And it's typical: Ethnic folk singing/rapping/convulsively dancing/beating on buckets serenading said product like some deranged ghettofied show tune. Or they’re cast in roles just this side of a post-modern minstrel show skit. And if it’s not that, they're in virtual boilerplate general market spots where someone literally plucked out all the white faces and plugged in with brown faces leaving every urban consumer who views it to go, "Who do they think they're talking to with this crap?!"

So why does ethnic advertising still look like this in 2005, even though general market stuff is nothing close to this?

Synergy, kids. Synergy. The images of ethnic folks presented by the targeted agency must be consistent with the preconceived notions of said ethnic folks held by the client/AOR/General Market consumer base. Otherwise, it's liable to make all involved think a little too hard about things other than the USP.

Just for kicks, I'd like to see clients like Ken Chenault (AmEx CEO) or Richard Parsons (Time Warner CEO) tell their GM shops, "You know, as a black male, I wanna see more imagery of white america that I'm accustomed to; so get me some skanky MILFs and beer-swilling frat boys before I put this account up for review!" (Let's see those One Show awards pile up now.)

And why do we make targeted shops jump thru those hoops? (Besides the obvious institutionalized bias and prejudice?) My guess is money.

White agencies hate sharing their AOR status with each other nevermind with "targeted" agencies. As many know, in 2004 clients spent $145 billion reaching consumers, but only 4% (an all-time high) with targeted agencies and media outlets. (Now who’d want to go and monkey with that marketing mix?) In fact, when RJ Dale was awarded the Illinois State Lottery (a $20 million account) from DDB Needham a couple years back, Needham (in cahoots with some shiesty types at the Chicago Tribune) accused RJ Dale of fraud. Turned out the only thing Dale was guilty of was growing ISL’s business while spending less money and producing better work than Needham. (Oops!)

In the end creating great advertising’s hard. It's even harder when folks are biased, greedy, and stupid. Forcing our colleagues at targeted agencies to translate general market creative and strategies is all of the above. Now if Gary Coleman figured out that it takes different strokes to move the world, what's our excuse?

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As a copywriter and brand consultant, Hadji Williams has helped shape some of America's top brands including: Aleve, Cingular, Coca-Cola, Ford Motors, Mercedes-Benz, RadioShack, SBC, and Wm. Wrigley Co. Hadji is the author of "Knock The Hustle," an unrelentingly honest look at the advertising industry and the business world in general. Hadji also is a poet, teacher, and Founder and CEO of ProdigalPen, Inc. Publishing, which publishes both fiction and non-fiction titles for multicultural readers.
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