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Race isn’t a social construct. It’s an ad campaign

What you can do to kill the greatest sell job of all time.

Race isn’t a social construct. It’s an ad campaign
[Photo: Deagreez/iStock; rawpixel]

Ask anybody in this industry to name the greatest advertising campaigns of all time. Most will probably say, “Just Do It.” (Full disclosure: It was created by my employer, Wieden+Kennedy, but still true.) Many will point to Apple’s “Think Different.”

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I look at this country, I look at my skin, and I have to give it up to the evil geniuses behind Race in America.

“It’s just a social construct”

If you had a certain type of liberal arts education, you’ve heard this line, usually said with a certain smug energy. Hot take, Ainslie. Yes, it’s made up, but my real Black body is viewed with real suspicion by the real NYPD and their very real guns.

What’s the point of saying it’s a construct if you don’t name the creators and say why they did it?

Long, painful story short: Race was the creative idea behind a campaign launched by rich landowners to keep European servants and African slaves from realizing they were both getting screwed. They teamed up once at Bacon’s Rebellion. They kicked out the governor. Burned down Jamestown. It looked kind of fun.

The rich said, “Never again.”

The strategy: divide and conquer.

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The execution: the Virginia Slave Codes, one-drop rule, The Naturalization Act, eugenics, slave patrols (America’s first police force), Birth of a Nation (America’s first superhero movie), and on and on.

When the Irish came over, the WASP’s natural enemy, rich folk did what was best for their bottom line: They revived the campaign. They grew market share and brand affinity among the newly minted immigrants, once again creating “poor white” and “black” (the “poor” there went unsaid).

Let them kill each other for crumbs, keep the profits, and let the good times roll.

That strategy calcified into history, and history calcified the campaign into “nature.” Today, if you’re not white in America, you are your race above anything else. Sometimes, above “human.” Our birth certificates stamp us from the beginning, and the rest of our lives are just nature taking its course.

Destiny: manifested.

People much smarter than me can expound on how we got here. But it’s wild. An evil strategy and inventive executions (see: 3/5 Compromise) have brainwashed us for over 300 years. I get that reading about race can be uncomfortable, but if you lugged around that 600-page brick of a Steve Jobs bio, you should see what real creativity and influence look like.

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Looking to the future

Understanding our history is crucial, but right now my eyes are drawn to the future. I found myself in the middle of the protests, not shouting but in silent awe of the spontaneous explosion of anger happening at the same time with millions of people around the world. I don’t know how long this energy can last, but it feels like this could be a once-in-a-generation moment. Which means this opportunity is also once-in-a-generation. I don’t want to fuck it up.

Like any ad campaign, if whiteness can be created, it can be destroyed. But don’t think for a second of falling back on platitudes like “the only race is the human race.” The video of George Floyd was a nine-minute snuff film, a Super Bowl spot for white supremacy. It’s traumatizing to watch, but it’s clarifying. Because like the Super Bowl, there are only two sides. Whose are you on? If you’re on ours, there’s work to do. The people reading this—the people trained in the business of persuasion—are in a unique position actually to push the movement forward.

To put it in agency speak: The client is your local community. The brief is getting rid of anti-Black politicians and policies destroying your city.

The timing: a pretty quick turnaround.

For two weeks, I’ve seen dozens of industry leaders wax poetic about justice, equality, listening—and above all, love. Some responses were truly energizing. Many were the liberal equivalent of Thoughts & Prayers.

Love is not the answer. The answer is bodies, talent, money, research, media strategies, earned-media ideas, KPIs to measure real wins and losses, deadlines to hold ourselves accountable, and everything else we use to get people to change behaviors. Instead of using all the creativity and data that those same industry leaders brag about to sell consumers yet another brand of soap, what if it was harnessed to get the knee off your neighbor’s neck?

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It takes money

A lot of people reading this make a lot of money making fun things. That is a wonderful blessing. If you want justice and peace, a much-needed tax on that money is to give it to organizations doing life-and-death things.

In the short-term, here are some organizations addressing the state-inflicted pain and chaos that’s come as a result of the protests.

While we’re on the subject of money, I’d like to suggest the #CanIRunSomethingByYouChallenge. Have you’ve asked a Black coworker to contribute ideas to a white-owned business’s corporate response to this moment? Pinged them to look at an email “Re: BLM”? Made them discuss Blackness in the context of unrelated products like tires? Okay. Now acknowledge the emotional burden and donate to a cause supporting mental health resources for Black Americans. You’re stressing us out.

That’s out of pocket.

On an agency level, clients will never be the tip of the spear of progress, but for those interested in doing more and looking for guidance, there are partnerships waiting to happen. Places where they can put their money where their corporate statements are. Teaming your client with the right kind of community organization could create something beautiful and potentially long-lasting, the business equivalent of an interracial buddy movie. (But maybe not a buddy cop comedy).

In the medium term, find a Black-owned business. Win the account. Help them grow.

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But the greatest long-term growth comes the good old-fashioned way: Employ people. The most talented people I know didn’t have a linear path into advertising, so until the ad schools diversify, you’re going to have to expand your recruitment plan.

Two words: Black Twitter.

The collective talent there alone is better than any ad school, and I went to one. But if you’re going to recruit outside of factories like VCU or Miami Ad, you might need to do a little mentorship. If you’re not sure how, just watch The Blind Side. Kidding.

It takes time

These efforts take time, particularly to develop relationships with anti-racist organizations in your community. Pick one. Build trust. From there, they can help direct that energy to specific goals to help your city.

Make time to learn who your mayor, police chief, district attorney, U.S. attorney, and sheriff are, and more importantly, their stances on issues of funding priorities, their police union, social services, and abuse of qualified immunity. A lot of those positions are elected. Help unseat the bad ones.

Make time to read people like bell hooks, James Baldwin, and Paul Beatty. Anti-racist reading lists are everywhere these days, but there are brilliant essays, love stories, and comedies that give us dimension, and cast light upon Black life beyond the police baton.

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Make time to have conversations with clients who won’t say those three words. Time to value Black people as much as we value Black culture.

Time spent doing any of these things will be a better use of your life than the time we’ve all spent impotently bitching about Trump. (But sure, fuck that guy.)

It takes talent.

Thankfully, you are wildly talented. Unfortunately, you’re not going to win a single award this year; they’re all canceled. Now you can try to win something real.

If we spent this year pointing our creative egos away from the promenades of Cannes and back toward the streets of our own cities, what could happen? Imagine walking into a chief creative officer’s office and next to the awards is a framed article about a campaign successfully unseating a racist D.A. I’d want to work there.

The challenges your city faces require true creativity. It’s not enough to say Black Lives Matter. Be braver and more creative than Mitt Romney.

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Come up with a targeted campaign to get your sheriff removed if they support anti-Black policies. Or stunts to get on the local news, pressuring your police chief to demilitarize and de-escalate tactics. Or create a bot to flood the phone lines and social media feeds of every state politician until they get rid of laws that keep cops’ records sealed from the people who pay their salaries.

Personally, I’m trying to find ways to pressure businesses that say they stand with Black Lives Matter to guarantee publicly that their employees have at least four hours off on election day. But that’s just one idea.

I get that people are tired. Imagine how tired the Black people in your company are. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that tangible progress is more energizing than any ad. Did you see #WhiteLivesMatter trending last week? When I clicked on it with dread, I was so happily surprised to find out why it was trending: An army of K-Pop stans took it upon themselves to drown out all the hateful messages with cute GIFs of BTS. That shit is life-affirming.

It takes all of us

Creativity can come from anywhere, but this problem requires it to come from everywhere. Especially this industry. Even the most influential campaigns lose relevance, and it’s high time for this one to die.

Today, millions of us, some of us the descendants of those European servants and African slaves, are literally standing shoulder to shoulder once again. The creative industry, a long-time partner for the greatest advertising campaign of all time, could help lead the way.

Don’t be an ally. Be an activist. Is that a daunting proposition? Fuck yes. But find your people. I’m one of ’em. Use these feelings and that energy to throw a brick through old ideas. Then use that brick—plus your time, your money, and your talent—to build something better.

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Michael Hagos is an art director based in New York. He works at Wieden+Kennedy, but if you’re working to fight police brutality, he’s available to moonlight.

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