The Elephant in the Room

By Iman Omar

About a year ago, I was outside having a cigarette with a couple of agency colleagues, an Asian-American producer friend of mine shared an all-too-common story.

“So I was working on [brand redacted] and we were on a conference call about a shoot and the scene takes place in the kitchen. We were doing one general audience spot and one spot for African-American audiences…”

My friends and I roll our eyes and steady ourselves, bracing for what we all know what is to come.

“We start off with the general audience spot and decide we will have a mom, dad, older sister, and a younger brother. Everyone agrees. An audible pause comes from the client when we decide we’ll have the same configuration for the African-American family.”

We all start laughing at this point, out of nerves, frustration, or potentially both, because he’s regurgitating a story that’s all-too familiar.

As a mixed-raced female copywriter working with a Chinese-Canadian female art director at the time, we had heard this before. Way too many times before.

Subtly, but quite clearly, it’s conveyed to my friend that the spot targeting African-American consumers should feature a single mom with three kids and there should be chips on their dinner table instead of salad. Oh, and fruit punch in the glasses seems more realistic than the water that will be in the cups in the general-audience execution.

Really? Sadly, it’s no joke.

My friend protested as couthfully as he could but didn’t get far.

It’s very common in advertising to hear things like “It should skew urban” or “it skews too urban.” We all hear this sentiment conveyed day in and day out and don’t do enough to fight the stereotypes.

I was once told that a voiceover I delivered for a commercial didn’t sound “black” enough. Ironic, since the voice was mine and, as my dad is African and I was born in Africa, I’m an African American. The client had yet to meet me in person and I suppose I didn’t sound urban enough.

Racial targeting has to stop, especially since too many of those doing the targeting really don’t have a clue about the demographic they are trying to target.

These stories are so common we sometimes become immune to trying to right the wrongs. Ask anybody in marketing or advertising and they can easily produce their own stories of these awkward moments.

More times than I would like to believe were necessary, I have played my race card. “As a minority woman of mixed race” usually is a conversation stopper. I’m a realist and recognize that ad agencies exist to sell products. If that means that in Asia we can’t cast a black man as the lead in our spot because it won’t go over well, I can’t really argue that the company should be setting an example because that’s not what I’m there to do.

But I’m also not there to perpetuate these myths. If a client tells me something is “too urban,” I have to ask them what that means. I’m overtly, but in the most PC way possible, forcing clients and colleagues to recognize the repercussions of the words they say.

They hurt. They sting. They’re wrong.

I firmly believe that the more we make our clients and our colleagues say what they really mean and not couch directions in code, the more things will change. Everyone has unconscious biases. Study after study in publications like the Harvard Business Review prove that. Mindfulness, indeed, mitigates the biases many don’t even know they have. I’m not overtly trying to humiliate anyone. I don’t like to be uncomfortable and don’t like to make others uncomfortable.

Things have to change and the more dialog we collectively have, the better.

Why don’t more of us say something? Many of my white male colleagues have also been disgusted and outraged by these occurrences and I don’t believe they stay quiet just because they want to keep the status quo. In my experience, white males in advertising are praised for “rocking the boat” and “pushing the client,” but you often (not always, and again I stress this is not a work of absolutes) find them silent when these racially charged strategies and client requests come up.

I believe that this comes from a place of sensitivity to their own privilege (which I praise them for) but I would offer this challenge. What if they used the privilege they enjoy and were the ones to say these stereotypes aren’t acceptable? Wouldn’t more of the minorities in these meetings feel their views were validated? Wouldn’t it take the stigma off of being the buzzkill feminist or the militant anti-racialist? By normalizing small protests when things don’t feel right, we might begin to change things. As history has repeatedly shown, it’s often the majority that has to pave the way for the minority.

We all have to work together, supporting the outspoken members of the majority who act as our allies. I’ll never forget how it felt when a white senior account lead empowered me to push our client on what she actually meant when she said she wanted a more African-American voiceover. It sparked such candid dialog in a non-confrontational way that boosted our relationship and led to better work.

We aren’t going to solve racism with marketing, even though we can make a dent in the conversation. But we have to start somewhere, and if we change the conversation in our industry and others follow suit, we might collectively make a difference. We must make people say what they mean and make them aware of the racist connotations some of their words and directions hold. It can be uncomfortable. But, it’s necessary. A scan of the nation’s toxic headlines shows just how imperative it is.

Here’s to small steps and getting those glasses filled with water instead of fruit punch.