Fast Company

Does Ethnocentricity Sell? Part 1: Advertising

Black History Month is almost over, so I figure I'd tackle this topic while we're still in February. Maybe it's because I'm not watching as much TV, but I haven't seen nearly as many ads saying "We Celebrate Black History Month" as I used to. These types of ads, which were once ubiquitous in February, seem to have fallen off in popularity. Why?

Let's consider the negative angle first: perhaps they come off as opportunistic. That was the charge a few years ago when Procter & Gamble, which makes Metamucil, ran an ad in Ebony that tried to link the values of the black community to gastrointestinal health. It was lampooned by observers, including Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. (Click here to see the video clip.)

Of course, there's also a whole philosophical debate on whether or not Black History Month should still exist, but that's another story. Closely tied to this issue, however, and particularly relevant to marketing is this question: Do companies affiliated with Black History Month inspire greater loyalty or action among black consumers? According to a study conducted by Burrell Communications Group last year, the answer is yes. Out of all respondents, 63 percent said that companies that promote Black History Month enhance their image, 65 percent said that they were more likely to buy products from companies that celebrate blacks' achievements, and 57 percent would recommend those products to people they know.

So if Black History Month ads are still held in high regard by black consumers, why aren't they as prevalent? Perhaps there's been a shift in strategy. In the "Next" section of our current issue, there's an article by Ellen McGirt on Alicia Morga, the founder and CEO of Consorte Media, an online marketing firm geared toward Hispanic consumers. The article noted one case study that examined two ads for a home-financing campaign to determine which would be more attractive among Hispanic consumers. One featured a portrait of a smiling family, intended to key into the high importance of family values within the Hispanic community; the other showed images of suburban homes. Which ad won? The one with the suburban homes -- it, apparently, tapped into the Hispanic community's aspirations for upward mobility. But are such aspirations unique to the Hispanic community? Of course not.

This outcome, although it regards another ethnic demographic, suggests a new approach: rather than slapping "We Celebrate Black History" across their ads, perhaps companies have decided to tie themselves more intimately to economic aspirations within the black community. This might involve highlighting the achievements of black employees or developing initiatives to help black families achieve goals such as home ownership. As Ellen's article shows, the conventional wisdom on attracting different racial and ethnic demographics may not actually be a good bet -- but it still pays to find what works. What works, moreover, might not even be exclusive to that particular group.

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