Multicultural Marketing: How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation and Not Market Like Someone’s Racist Grandmother

Cultural Appropriation in Marketing

In today’s America, companies are no longer selling to one isolated demographic. Magazines, cereal, cars, T.V. shows — even doughnuts — are being marketed to an progressively diverse and colorful population. During the majority of America’s history, buying power was restricted in minority communities, and limited to particular sections of white America. However, as wealth has begun to grow in minority communities, and as the population continues to diversify — marketing to one racial, ethnic or cultural group, may prove to be insufficient if a firm wishes to remain competitive, and carve out a substantial share of their respective market. As the race to sell to a multicultural base of potential buyers continues — a disparity in the world of marketing is becoming increasingly evident. The buying population may be diverse, but highly paying and powerful executive positions in America’s corporate framework are disproportionately homogenous. Firms marketing to Latin, Asian, African American and Native American potential buyers, may have hire very few employees who come from those communities. This lack of corporate representation of minorities can present a number of issues for the marketing department of a firm. If insensitive behavior is not checked early on in a campaign’s formation, what may begin as ‘saying the wrong thing,’ or coming off as ‘out of the loop’ can end up leading to isolation from a huge percentage of potential buyers. For a firm, one of the worst and most damaging forms of this kind of insensitivity is cultural appropriation.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the silent racism of marketing and advertising — and something that marketers moving into a diverse field must be aware of if they want to avoid potentially catastrophic blunders for their companies. The phrase cultural appropriation means: stealing, or capitalizing on, the cultural property, struggles, creativity or experiences of a group of people, usually oppressed, without honoring or respecting the people themselves, and without making substantial efforts to ease their oppression. Cultural appropriation should not be confused with cultural sharing. While cultural sharing and cultural appropriation may both result in the exchange of cultural traditions, perspectives and creations, cultural appropriation relies on a power imbalance to allow one group to take without compensating the other group socially or financially; cultural appropriation aims to use the culture of a group for gain of some kind, whether physical, social or monetary. Red flags for cultural appropriation in marketing include: insensitive campaigns or ads, ignorance about the history of a cultural group, a history of discrimination within a company that contradicts the company’s current campaigns, silence when a group is being targeted, efforts to continue exerting privilege over minority groups while simultaneously using their cultural creations, disrespectful comments, pandering, using minorities as ‘tokens,’ and cultural whitewashing.

Why is cultural appropriation a problem for Marketers?

Everyone who is honest in marketing knows that decisions are rarely made for their moral or ethical validity alone. What matters is data. The bottom line questions in marketing are: “Will a marketing decision attract buyers and result in profit, or will it result in loss for a firm? How can we use marketing to maximize a firm’s profit and minimize its costs?” So why then, is it important for marketers to be aware of cultural appropriation? What does it matter if an ad is run, and a few people feel insulted? Aren’t they just snowflakes — politically correct and financially ignorant? After all, cultural appropriation in America has been used as a sales and marketing tactic since Mammy figures were first used to sell everything from washing powder to pancakes during the Reconstruction era — and to a certain degree the tactics have worked. Until now.

The 21st century represents the most statistically diverse period in American history. For the first time since the civil rights movement, minorities have a significant voice, visible platforms for expression, and relevant buying power. Moreover, after multiple thwarted attempts on minority progress by corporate and federal institutions, minority communities have finally begun to move significantly into the middle class. Furthermore, as the internet has begun to unite people through social media, communities are becoming decreasingly isolated in their struggles. Those who sympathize with the fight for human rights, equality and civil justice — even if they come from different cultures — are able to decide where their money goes as result of what they see. And, thanks to the internet, they see everything. So, while ethics may not always be the first thing on the mind of a marketing executive, it is increasingly at the top of the list for aware buyers, who comprise a greater share of the market every day. A wrong move in marketing and advertising can lead to huge repercussions for a firm — a perfect example of which was revealed by the 2017 Kendal Jenner Pepsi commercial.

Pepsi and Kendall v.s. Everyone Woke

2015, 2016 and 2017 were years of tumult for the African American community. After a number of violent and grotesque examples of police brutality flooded T.V. screens, people all over America, regardless of race, were filled with both sorrow and the desire to unite for equal human rights in the face of injustice. The murders of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and a innumerable of other innocent African Americans, caught on camera, sparked the creation of the Black Lives Matter, movement, and a number of poignant protests. The protests, a vast majority of which were entirely peaceful, were met with severe political backlash and in many cases, violence. Enter stage right — Kendal Jenner. In February 2017, Pepsi released a commercial which begins by showing a huge protest that is being held on a busy city road. A camera pans across a crowd holding peace signs and posters with the words “join the conversation” printed on them, and settles on the faces of minorities from historically oppressed groups in the United States. Suddenly, the camera moves towards a silver building where Kendall Jenner is doing a photo shoot — a cello plays in the background.

Suddenly, Kendal sees the protestors. She rips off her shiny blond wig and, in one version of the ad, casually pushes a black woman aside as she runs to join the protest. Finally, after much dancing, Kendall gives a man with cornrows a fist bump as she approaches a line of police officers and — with a warm smile, hands one a Pepsi. As West Coast University Professor Dr. Roshmi Mishra, who holds a PHD in Social Justice and Mindfulness, explained: “If you want to teach high school students about cultural appropriation, just have them turn on the t.v. …In my house, we mute the ads.”

The Risk of Remaining Indifferent

The results of Pepsi’s tone deaf ad were as follows: The release of a public apology by Pepsi, and the immediate retraction of the ad; reports by all major news stations (except FOX of course) condemning Pepsi for using serious struggle for financial gain; public outcry on social media, including the creation of a meme that went viral, picturing Kendall Jenner holding a Pepsi as she solves all of the worlds social problems. Furthermore, an April 6th, 2017 article released by authors Char Adams and Gillian Telling from People Magazine estimated that the Pepsi ad — which was immediately pulled — would have cost around “100 million to create.” Did Pepsi still make money that quarter- yes of course, it’s Pepsi. But did they also spend millions of dollars to clean up bad press, regain the positive image of their brand, and quell the very loud conversation being had by people who care about social justice? Yes, yes they did. All of that could have been avoided if Pepsi had kept Kendall “in her lane,” so to speak. Biomedical sciences tutor, and medical student, Stephen Richmond, represented many buyers when he made the following statement — “When I find out that a company is bigoted, hateful, or supports hateful legislation, I stop buying from them. If [a marketing executive] wants to be tone deaf in their personal life that’s fine, but there should be no place for that in industry. Cultural appropriation marginalizes and then profits off an already at risk and underprivileged community that is struggling.”

7 Steps to Appropriation Free Marketing

The under-representation of minorities in marketing can result in the creation of usually tasteless, often tone deaf and sometimes even racist ads and campaigns. For companies who don’t want to recreate Pepsi’s blunder, marketing expert and a current specialist at Zimmerman Advertising, Gabriel Gomez, recommends that companies “make sure they have a diverse staff to ensure there are different perspectives being considered.” Furthermore, for companies with funding, Gomez’s advice is to “invest resources into research [that will] help companies make informed decisions that are not offensive.” Even lone marketers can benefit from Gomez’s advice. For the recently graduated marketing student who may not have access to this kind of large-scale research, there is still hope. In the spirit of working towards communal solutions — here is a list of 7 things to keep in mind, as a marketing expert, so as to avoid the sticky and unnecessary issue of cultural appropriation:

  1. Know Your Message
  • Marketers should be very clear about the message they want to send when they incorporate another culture’s creative property or experiences into their work. What is the message? Is it being clearly expressed? Could the message be misinterpreted? Could this ad be hurtful, insensitive, unclear or harmful in any way? Is something positive being said about the culture being borrowed? Are negative stereotypes being reinforced?

2. Know Your History

  • Before making any cultural or ethnic references, it is vital that marketers know their history. Ignorance is not always intentional, but it is avoidable. Knowing and understanding what struggles minority communities deal with makes marketing blunders much less likely, and allows space for the cultural sharing.

3. Incorporate and Honor

  • Inner immersion is a mindfulness modality, created by Jose and Anastasia Hernandez, that works to help people overcome multiple forms of trauma and PTSD through powerful forms of art and meditation.The founders work closely with part of the Native Canadian population in British Colombia, Canada — a group that has been deeply marginalized during North America’s recent history. When asked about cultural sharing, Anastasia said the following: “At Inner Immersion, we incorporate Native music into our mindfulness practice. The Native American spiritual traditions are in line with our teachings, so it’s very supportive.”

4. Give Back — Don’t ‘Crop And Prop’

  • Anastasia continued to explain how important it is not to take from any community without giving back. She noted ways in which the Native Community was integrated with the couple’s life outside of work as well, at which point Joe provided an additional comment: “My grandmother was Native American, so it feels very rewarding when we use our practices to help young people in the [Native Canadian] community.” Incorporating a culture, and giving back provides a stark contrast to some common practices. For example, it happens all the time in advertising that traditionally sacred Lakota Sioux feather headdresses are cropped out of their cultural context, and used as props for profit.

5. Test Your Campaign On The Group You Reference

  • Newly hired marketing specialists may find very little diversity in the firms they work for. Thus, if someone wants to place, for instance, Latin X people in an ad, and does not check the validity of the ad with members of the Latin X community, they are potentially digging themselves into a hole. Always get approval from members of a community before releasing any marketing that uses them, or their culture.

6. Do Not Whitewash Minority Groups

  • Remember the movies Ghost in the Shell and Gods of Egypt? No — no one does, because despite multi million dollar budgets and big name actors, both 2016 and 2017 films flopped culturally when powerful minority characters were explicitly whitewashed. People are over it.

7. Remember: Representation Matters

  • The 1940’s Doll Experiment, created by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, showed the extent to which representation in culture shapes the perception that children have of themselves, their race, and their appearance. Marketers are directly responsible for shaping culture. Those in marketing have the ability to re-create the way that groups are represented, and the information that the public receives. Subsequently, the presence of prejudice, racism, judgement, cultural superiority and injustice of all kinds, is closely linked to the images, ads, campaigns and writings that marketers create. Every ad sends a message to the community and the country, and representation matters.

Dig A Little Deeper!

New York Times Pepsi Article:

Kendall Jenner Pepsi Commercial:

People Magazine Pepsi Article:

Recreated Doll Test:

Ghost In The Shell Trailer:

Gods Of Egypt Trailer:

Diversity in Corporate Leadership Statistics: