From: Wade T. Smith (email@example.com)
Date: Sun 12 Jan 2003 - 18:34:30 GMT
Marketers are embracing the idea of a 'post-racial' America. Goodbye,
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
This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 1/12/2003.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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