A Literacy of the Imagination

a deeper look at innovation through the lenses of media, technology, venture investment and hyperculture

Where on Earth is the 'Multi' in Multicultural Advertising?

The power and influence of advertising, marketing and media never ceases to amaze me. In fact, what's even more amazing (or appalling, depending on how you look at it) is the fact that many of us can work our way through the days of the week not fully realizing this power or even exploring all the ways to harness it.

But those are the inherent challenges of working in a business where the bottom line can often drive us to forget the very reasons why we're here. The social web has introduced a great new way to remind us of why we're here, and the importance of making our decisions - whether personal or professional - count for something.

And then there's this thing called 'Multicultural Advertising'.

By definition, 'multicultural' means two things:

1. Of, or relating to, or including several cultures;

2. Of, or relating to a social or educational theory that encourages interaction in many cultures within a society rather than in only a mainstream culture.

Let's take a peek at what some of the top global brands have produced in the way of 'multicultural advertising'. Since I’m a digital guy and I believe this where the most progress or harm can currently be made, we’ll focus on websites.

In the spirit of the new FTC guidelines, quick disclosure: I was not paid by anyone to express the opinions you see in this post. However, when you see some of this so-called ‘advertising work’, you might be incensed enough to call the FTC yourself and have some of these brands sanctioned and put under review for unethical, and questionably illegal, marketing practices. I’ll go even farther out on a limb and say that I’m not sure that some of this stuff is even constitutional.

Let's start with one of the industry's more popular (and unsurprisingly controversial) efforts from McDonald's, called "365 Black".

Where on Earth is the 'Multi' in Multicultural Advertising?

As you can see, this is a real gem of brand innovation. Where do we possibly begin? Well, let’s start with the fact that if I am ‘black’, I get to be ‘black’ 365 days of the year. Well isn’t that progressive. But most importantly, the mighty Bodhi, or Baobab tree, tells me never to forget my roots. Wow. Truly inspirational, especially since the tree’s silhouette so brilliantly resembles an afro.

Now let’s move onto the wondrous 365 Black homepage that is “deeply rooted in the community” (trademark).

Where on Earth is the 'Multi' in Multicultural Advertising?

Gee, I didn’t know that cultural IP – you know, the stuff that you share every day – could be copyrighted. But have no fear, cuz you can have a “Flavor Battle” with your homies. How dope is that, yo? Spin some fresh shit and you get a quarta pounda! And don’t forget that Dwele got a lot new fans, you know, homies, after he started working with McDonald’s. I just can’t believe none of my ‘black’ friends are doing this.

Oh, and for you Far East types, the McDee offering gets even better with ‘MyinspirAsian’.

Where on Earth is the 'Multi' in Multicultural Advertising?

Dude — Dollar Menu Money Origami! Really??? And since so many Asians are lacking in real career opportunities, now they can take workshops that teach them how to make paper dragons, fly kites and spin wool. What a godsend! And if that’s not enough, you can shock your friends by mastering NEW Asian phrases, not to mention you can download event photos, cuz, you know, Asians like to take lots of pictures and share them with each other.

Hey, I’m lovin’ it. Let’s just call this new movement exactly for what it is: McOriental. Or just plain McTarded.

Moving on, here’s another gem of brand wizardry soon to come from American Airlines, called Black Atlas.

Where on Earth is the 'Multi' in Multicultural Advertising?

  First of all, Nelson George, what the f&*# are you thinking? Do you really need the extra money to whore yourself and your ethnicity out to a brand that actually thinks that there is a unique and extraordinary travel experience to be shared exclusively through ‘sophisticated’ African-American (kudos for not saying ‘black’) travelers? And just what is the ‘black experience’? Are we talkin’ Soul Plane? Oh, I forgot, this is for the elite.

And to AA, might I ask, what exactly are the criteria for ‘sophisticated’ African-American travelers? That seems pretty inane, considering that not only excludes a large portion of the African-American population, but a large portion of the population in general. Oh, and in the hopes that something of merit might be explained away prior to Black Atlas’s launch, I read a PR posting on BET.com:

Where on Earth is the 'Multi' in Multicultural Advertising?
Hmmm. Nice headline. A wealth of information here. All the respective marcom agencies really thought this one out. Did anyone get the memo that there are hundreds of ‘Web sites’ out there, you know, things called social networks where people of all races, colors and creeds can share content, and if they want to join a common interest group, for say, travelers, they can? One really popular social site is called Facebook.

To make matters worse, the post had one comment, coming from an understandably jaded ‘black’ person:

Where on Earth is the 'Multi' in Multicultural Advertising?

He nails it right on the head: “I wonder what their motive is?” Ain’t that the truth. It sure as hell isn’t meant to inspire advocacy. I’m even willing to bet that not one African-American was even involved in the development of this priceless idea. I say priceless because, thankfully, this site probably won’t make AA a red cent. Or is that a ‘black’ cent?

I checked out least two dozen other ‘multicultural’ sites and discovered similar travesties. That said, not all of them are offensive. This effort from General Mills is at least a thoughtful attempt at treating a definable community as a part of the cultural mainstream.

Where on Earth is the 'Multi' in Multicultural Advertising?

No exploding pinatas here, or overweight senoritas cooking enchiladas for families of fifteen or more. In fact, the site would rather tell you how to reduce your cholesterol and provide expert advice on nutrition. This is a site that chooses to look at people for who they are: General Mills consumers, and family people that care about quality product and a better quality of life. They even have the decency to say what a rich life this is. Seems they are talking about culture at large. Fathom that.

If you run a Google search on 'multicultural advertising', you'll see a whole slew of marketing agencies, organizations, non-profit groups and educational entities listed right there on page 1 and 2. Yet not one of them seems to be influencing the majority of messaging and content on offer both online and off. Apparently, from various sources that I know, groups like the AHAA (The Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies) have been battling these issues for years, and have had to contend with the fact that ‘general’ marketing efforts eat up most ad budgets, leaving the ‘multicultural’ marketing groups in the lurch... Or simply fighting for the scraps.

Sounds logical, given how screwed up the system can be. However, money doesn’t have to be an excuse for poor strategy and creative execution. For one, building websites is far less cost prohibitive than it was only two or three years ago. For another, the social web affords us plenty of opportunities to spread messages and build real currency. In other words, there shouldn’t be any excuses. Not anymore.

Now, I'll also let it be known that I don't officially work as a 'multicultural marketer', but it seems to me that multicultural work should do three primary things:

1. Expose cultural mores and defy ethnic stereotypes.
2. Establish points of commonality and build mutual respect.
3. Embrace individuality, while buffering against group ambiguity.

Actually, this sounds a lot like what I do. When we socialize media, we set out to do exactly these three things. Further, when we run technographic, psychographic and/or ethnographic studies, we quickly realize that, in many environments, common interests often supersede age, economics and ethnicity.

So why then are specific ethnic communities targeted on their own?

Why are they targeted so poorly?

Most importantly, we are these efforts exclusionary?

Granted, we don't live in a perfect world. We also don't always share physical spaces with people who are different from us, or interact with them in the real world, in the ways that we probably should. But isn't the point of responsible advertising and marketing to change or influence these social dynamics in positive ways?

I’ll tell you one thing, I’m not going to raise my children according to a world that knowingly chooses to identify people by their race, color, creed or sexuality. Some may argue with me on this, but as a person of mixed ethnicity and heritage (Native American, German Jew and Irish Catholic), I believe racism only exists if we choose to recognize it. And it seems to be pervasive in a lot of the advertising we currently see.

Time to wake up, folks. Time to take a stand. Cultural wealth and integrity is a shared responsibility, plain and simple.