Large advertising agencies are powerful fiefdoms that largely control the advertising spending for the major corporations in the United States and abroad. The industry, in people, is relatively small, about 172,000 and overwhelmingly white. (To my last four readers, the going really gets tough from here) With virtually no representation from people of color in the management ranks of the industry, the proper filters don't exist to create advertising that has the right balance of insight and information to credibly speak to the growing percentage of the population that is ethnic.
That's why you see so many black, Hispanic and Asian stereotypes in ads. There are very few black, Hispanic and Asian chief creative officers to say: "Hell, no!" The singer Nat King Cole had a critically acclaimed variety show in the '50s that died for lack of advertisers, prompting Nat to exclaim, "I guess Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."
There is a different problem now. Advertisers for the most part want to -- need to -- sell to everyone. They have created budgets and initiatives to reach consumers that are best reached with cultural relevance. The problem is they too often spend those budgets with agencies that do not have the makeup within their ranks to develop credible advertising for these groups. Even if the work is written by a Hispanic copywriter, he still has to sell the work through a management system and many times a client as well who don't have the ability to judge its effectiveness or even appropriateness to an ethnic target.
So in the end you have an ad that can be perceived to be racist, sexist and tasteless and the scapegoat will probably be the female product manager who in this case was working with what she had. Advertisers: It should not be acceptable for you to have agencies that get A's for creativity but failing grades for insight. Make your agencies prove they have cultural competence and are representative all the way through the management ranks particularly at the sign-off levels. Or, risk alienating your target consumer or embarrassing your company with major gaffs like this one.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Larry Woodard is a director on the Advertising Week board and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' New York Council.
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