July 20, 2011— -- In 1972, the late comedian George Carlin released an album that contained a skit called the Seven Words you Can't Say on Television. The skit contains the seven words, still pretty much considered obscene and not printable here. Carlin was pressing the idea of free speech and caused quite a controversy.
He was arrested after performing the skit live on stage and when he performed the skit on radio it became the basis for a case that wound up in the Supreme Court. There are few topics in our society that are as divisive as obscenity; one of them arguably is race. So, in light of a recent campaign for Summer's Eve dubbed "Hail to the V" (yeah, that "V") that are being called racist and sexist by many and borderline obscene by others; I thought I'd take the opportunity to talk about racism, obscenity and advertising. Hide the children and hold on to your hats!
The ads in question were created by the Richards Group, an advertising agency based in Dallas that lists among its clients Bridgestone, Home Depot and Motel Six. There are three ads, each targeting a racial group. How do I know? Because in each ad there is a hand, ala Senor Wences and Johnny, but instead of horizontal to simulate a mouth, these hands are vertical to simulate a vagina. (OK, I know I've lost half of the readers just now -- but for the rest of you, stick with me, it gets worse.)
In an attempt to differentiate based on insights into each ethnic group, each spot suggests a slightly different rationale for using the products. The black hand explains to African American women that you spend a lot of time on the hair on your head, why neglect the hair down there while showing the drawing of a cactus. (Okay, I've lost my African American readers, let's move on.) The Hispanic hand starts off by saying "Aye, Aye, Aye" and then in a heavily accented voice mentions the "trashing the tacky leopard thong" -- need I say more? (Hasta luego Hispanic readers) The Caucasian hand starts off by welcoming viewers with a hearty "Hello from Vagina Land". (Please! Dear reader, come back next week)
As my mother would say when I just went off the deep end: "Have you lost your mind?" Okay, that's enough about the ads because we want to spend some time addressing how ads like these get produced. One look at the portfolio of the Richards Group and you realize they are a very talented agency whose work has given us a lot of pleasure and likely sold a lot of product for their various clients. So what caused them to miss by a nautical mile with this campaign?
You have to first understand there is a battle being waged in the advertising industry. It is about race, demographics and representation. But above all, it is about money.
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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