Fwd: Whassup, Barbie?

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Date: Sun 12 Jan 2003 - 18:34:30 GMT

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    Whassup, Barbie?

    Marketers are embracing the idea of a 'post-racial' America. Goodbye, niche marketing.

    By Rob Walker, 1/12/2003


    BACK IN 1978, The Washington Post ran a long piece headlined "On Television, Race No Longer Divides U.S." It cited, among other things, Bill Cosby's role as a spokesman for Jell-O and a Pepsi ad featuring "a typical suburban family, which happens to be black."

    Fast forward a quarter-century or so. One of the most successful advertising campaigns in the past few years began with a very unflashy TV spot featuring rather minimalist phone conversations among four friends. This was Budweiser's "Whassup?" ad, in which that telltale question was invariably followed with someone replying, rather blankly,
    "Watching the game," and "Drinking a Bud." The commercial launched a series of follow-up variations, won its creator a major film deal, and sent "Whassup?" spinning out into common usage. The four friends were all black.

    In his recent book "American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business & The End of White America," Leon E. Wynter argues that this ad is something more than just another vehicle for peddling mass-market brews. Unlike the family in the old Pepsi ad, the Bud buddies don't just happen to be black. "What was unique about the campaign," Wynter says in an interview, "was that the essence of that kind of friendship between young black men could be something that all of America could be expected to identify with, the implication being that the characters in the ad related to each other in a way that was not necessarily exclusive to black folks, but had its purest expression at this moment in cultural time, in black folks."

    Wynter, a journalist and former Wall Street Journal columnist, believes that whiteness as a synonym for American-ness is disappearing, at least in the commercial marketplace, and is being replaced by a new sense of national identity that takes many of its cultural cues from black culture. But this new American-ness isn't only about making the culture more black; it's also about making it more flexible and ambiguous when it comes to all things racial and ethnic. The cultural shopping mall created by marketing images, Wynter believes, is one place where America is becoming truly "post-racial"-where ethnic difference does not divide, but actually brings diverse constituencies together.

    It's certainly true that commercial culture- not just marketing, but pop expression generally- has been changing in the way it portrays, targets, and uses race and ethnicity. In the past, marketers often ignored minority groups. Everybody was supposed to want the same kind of car the white folks in the ads were driving. Then marketers established what might be called separate-but-equal selling: the targeted approach, which pragmatically acknowledges that different groups respond to different messages. Most recently we've seen the United Nations style, in which any group of happy customers, whether they're drinking Coors or driving VWs, includes a carefully balanced selection of clearly identifiable racial types. But even this model may now be giving way to something new.

    Marilyn Halter, a Boston University professor of American Studies, and author of the 2000 book "Shopping For Identity: The Marketing of Ethnicity," says that the 1990 census provided a major wake-up call to the marketing business, and data from 2000 has added new wrinkles. One big question for marketers is how to think about biracial, or transracial groups- a fast-growing category. The 2000 Census, which was the first to make a real attempt at quantifying biracial populations, found that a surprising 6.8 million Americans claimed they belonged to at least two racial groups. Because 43 percent of these biracial respondents were under 18, and because other measures show the rate of interracial marriage increasing, it seems reasonable to assume that these numbers will grow. In such a world, Halter points out in an interview, marketers must ask themselves, "Which makes more business sense? To mount separate promotions and campaigns for each ethnic market? Or to try to develop advertising and media that will be able to grab all the diversity-a kind of mosaic marketing?"

    Consider the marketing of Vin Diesel. When the action film "XXX" opened this summer, with relative newcomer Diesel as the star, the media- from People to GQ to Charlie Rose to Jet- couldn't get enough of him. Diesel was consistently described as a mysterious figure who, among other things, refused to discuss his ethnicity. He was happy to let his handlers spin this as a marketing plus: Supposedly, Latinos think Diesel is Latino, blacks see him as black, Italians identify him as Italian, and so on.

    On the other end of the mass-culture spectrum, there's Kayla. Kayla is a doll, one of the scores of "friends" that Mattel has created over the years to keep Barbie company. Barbie's imaginary circle has included ethnic variation since the late 1960s, but in keeping with old-school theories of segment marketing, those variations were always clearly defined: Here's a black friend, here's a Latina friend, etc. Kayla was introduced last year and, according a Mattel spokeswoman, her ethnic vagueness is a virtue: "You could look at Kayla and she could look Native American, she could look Puerto Rican, she could look anything." It's left to girls aged 3 to 8 to decide, possibly based on their own ethnicity or on that of their playmates. Meanwhile, a much-discussed new Barbie line for tweens is so far made up of just the blonde brandshell and two ethnically indeterminate buddies. "With Madison and Chelsea, it's the same thing," the Mattel spokeswoman says. "We haven't really attached an ethnicity. You see Madison and she could African American, or she could be Hispanic. Same thing with Chelsea- it's a little bit ambiguous."

    If Mattel knows what it's doing, niche marketing may be finished. Could it turn out that the way to conquer a diverse world isn't to tailor the product or the pitch to fit a narrow band of consumers, but rather to be as indistinct as possible and let everyone else fill in the blanks- the Rorschach theory of identity?

    Of course, such a notion runs counter to identity politics, and to multiculturalism, as developed over the past 20 years. Mulling the shift in the way Mattel has changed its Barbie-think, Wynter says, "I could be wrong, but I think multiculturalism is on the run. Slowly on the run. Because so much of it, at the end of the day, was artificial, built on certain presumptions of ethnic-cultural nationalism. It's ironic, people fought on college campuses for decades for a kind of separate recognition. But then by the time someone is out of school and on the job, and people start coming up to them and wishing them 'Happy Kwanzaa' because they're black- folks resented it."

    In "American Skin," Wynter (who is black) considers how various mixed-race celebrities from Tiger Woods to Derek Jeter to Halle Berry have chosen to deal with, or sidestep, questions of ethnic identity.
    "Your most desired place, unless you're heavily invested in an identity camp, is to be an individual, and at the same time reap the collateral benefits of racial ambiguity," he says. "You hold out the potential of being embraced by everyone, and turning off no one. Provided you're not attempting to be anything more than who you are."

    Of course, not everyone is equally able to reap such benefits. Both Halter and Wynter note that a conventional WASP identity still carries socioeconomic benefits (plus, Halter adds, it's a much easier position from which to dabble in "convenience ethnicity"). Moreover, commercial culture is just as likely to disguise reality as it is to reflect or transform it. For example, the current vogue for post-racialism corresponds with findings showing black and white children growing up in increasingly segregated neighborhoods across the country.

    Sure, you can't shake a remote control without finding a white guy and his close black friend (or a black guy and his close white friend) driving a pickup across the desert. Yet that kind of synthetic friendliness can be easily lampooned- witness the popularity of the website blackpeopleloveus.com, one of the most provocative online cult fads of 2002. The site purports to tell the tale of a white couple who have mastered the art of attracting lots of black friends, many of whom have contributed testimonials along the lines of, "Sally loves to touch my hair! She always asks me how I got my hair to do this," or "Johnny always plays up his (Italian, Irish, Jewish, etc.) ethnicity to me- as an entree into friendship!" The joke resonates not only because it sends up white insecurities, but also because it provokes serious thought about the relationship between the post-racial utopia of commercial culture and the isolation and miscommunication that characterize so much of real life.

    In the 1978 Washington Post article, an advertising executive noted that the appearance of racial harmony on television hardly corresponds with daily experience: "It may be a false picture of reality," he suggested, "but a true picture of our hopes." The biggest difference between then and now may be that we are more aware of the gap between the advertised life and the world around us than we've ever been.

    And the way Budweiser chose to deal with that gap may be the most telling aspect of the campaign's success. The makers of the "Whassup?" ad actually tried out a few permutations on their formula before perfecting it. For example, one variation took the familiar gambit of throwing in some white faces to make the friends a mix. Since that formula has become so routine, I asked Wynter why he thought the advertisers changed their minds in this case. "Those original ads lean heavily on saying that these people were such close friends that they could complete each other's sentences, and they could just pick up the phone and know who it was. If they had made it a little United Nations... ?" He pauses. "It wouldn't have looked as real."

    The "real" version not only got made, but turned out to be an advertising home run, and to Wynter this speaks, in part, to "the idea that there was something here that only a set a of black friends could bring to the table." Perhaps so. After all, many whites have long looked to blacks, especially black men, as embodiments of authenticity and naturalness. But it may also suggest something rather different-that today's commercial culture is less concerned with how explicit racial identities will be received, and more open to letting audiences sort out just how much such questions even matter in the first place.

    This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 1/12/2003.
    Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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