Monday, September 24, 2007
The Big Tent at AdAge.com presented another perspective from Alberto J. Ferrer, this time covering forced stereotypes in Latino marketing. MultiCultClassics chips in a few thoughts below too…
Please Hold the Sombreros
Making Your Creative ‘More Hispanic,’ One Stereotype at a Time
By Alberto J. Ferrer
There has been a lot of debate on this blog (at least in my posts) about the issue of language. My point was that people should be able to communicate in the language of their choice -- and marketers should be able to communicate with them in that language -- without fear of reprisal. I’m grateful to all who weighed in with their opinions (on both sides of the issue).
Today I’d like to steer the discussion in a different direction. Let’s take the issue of culture versus language up a notch and explore “Hispanic-ness” as it relates to marketing.
Not too long ago, we presented some creative concepts to a client. The work was well-received and complimented, and we felt good about a job well done. That feeling soon changed.
A couple of days later, our client called to say that other colleagues, who were not present at the original meeting, had seen the creative. These clients felt that the work as “not Hispanic enough.” We were floored.
Mind you, the team working on this was 100% Hispanic (an issue for a later post), working from a Hispanic market-specific creative brief which was rooted in a Hispanic insight that resonated with the target. We felt the concepts were relevant, engaging, and on strategy.
Still, these other clients felt there was a sort of “Hispanic-ness” missing from the work. Our main clients were asking us, in essence, “What’s Hispanic about this?”
I’m sorry to say that this is actually not that uncommon in our industry. Clients, after all, have a general market agency that creates work for the mainstream market, and a Hispanic agency that does the work targeting Hispanics. They want the work to be the same, but different. While I touched on the strategic side of the matter in an earlier post, here I’ll address the nuances of execution.
When a client (usually non-Hispanic) makes a comment about lack of “Hispanic-ness,” generally he or she is referring to things like darker-skinned talent, louder and livelier music, environments that are less “high-end,” stereotypical cues like family, food, clothing, etc.
There’s a fine line here. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect that the music used in a commercial targeting Hispanics be one that deeply resonates with the target. It’s not reasonable, however, to expect that it will be lively and loud because Hispanics like Salsa music. Targeting what we show in a commercial or how we portray our talent is just smart marketing. Putting abuelita (grandma) in the creative just because Hispanics care deeply about family is just silly.
Hispanics run the gamut on many scales of identification or definition (for example: all types of skin color; different tastes in food, clothing, and music; all levels of income). Be careful not to take the easy (and wrong) way out that is “add a few stereotypes to make it Hispanic.” We’re not talking about instant pancake mix (just add water) here.
It goes back to basic marketing and targeting. Putting darker-skinned folks wearing Mexican sombreros dancing to loud music with a large group of family members in a modest home may fit the bill for a specific situation. It will not fit every situation.
Challenge yourselves and your agencies to deliver communications that effectively engage the Hispanic target consumer without resorting to the cheap, stereotypical, and often insulting cues that an uninformed marketer might conclude makes something “more Hispanic” while the consumer finds it irrelevant or even insulting.
Ferrer’s perspective, while thoughtful and provocative, is hardly a new gripe in the world of minority advertising. In fact, the arguments are almost stereotypical at this point. TBT (The Big Tent) contributor Pepper Miller literally wrote a book titled, “What’s Black About It?” Frequent TBT comment poster Hadji Williams has covered the subject repeatedly. Of course, MultiCultClassics has spotlighted it too, beginning way back in Essay Eight. If there were more creative department representatives at TBT, the topic would have surfaced countless times already.
Ferrer claimed that when the client said the agency’s work “was not Hispanic enough,” he and his associates “were floored.” That’s probably an exaggeration. As Ferrer admits, this is not an uncommon phenomenon in the business. Ferrer was likely “floored” because the criticism hadn’t come up sooner. Sombreros may be standard in every production notes’ wardrobe section. Additionally, Ferrer’s agency reel possibly contains commercials with stereotypes—whether client-imposed or not.
But who’s really at fault for the global dilemma? Anyone familiar with minority advertising must grudgingly admit there’s no single source responsible for the cultural clichés so prevalent in the work. And there are more Catch-22’s than a Joseph Heller convention.
The stereotypical images were not always stereotypical. In fact, the multicultural agencies invented most of them. It may have started innocently enough. When minority representation in media was virtually non-existent, the multicultural shops unleashed relevant and authentic depictions of fill-in-the-minority life. Before you knew it, every advertiser wooing such audiences was requesting a family reunion/fiesta, basketball/soccer players, soul/salsa music, etc. The multicultural shops became victims of their own initial successes. (To be clear, while the above examples are Black- and Latino-focused, similar clichés could be identified for any minority segment imaginable.)
Today’s multicultural agency employees are not completely guiltless of continued wrongdoing. Plenty of them are totally willing to sell clichéd and contrived crap. But hey, the same bullshit occurs at White agencies too. One need only flip through popular magazines or watch prime-time television to witness stale, repetitive and insulting ideas. Our competitive industry, forever desperate to generate billable hours and retain accounts, has never been shy about appeasing clients—and to hell with integrity. To ultimately view multicultural agencies as equal to their White counterparts, we must be open to the reality that hacks lurk everywhere, not exclusively in the White agencies (however, White hacks far outnumber minority hacks).
Here’s another big problem: folks have difficulty separating cultural cues from racial and social issues. That is, the people behind minority advertising are extraordinarily paranoid about doing anything that could potentially lead to offended consumers staging public protests. As a result, the decision makers—on agency and client sides—will choose “safe” ideas that are tried and true. Plus, they’ll prefer to “honor” minorities by showing them as aspirational figures (e.g., hard-working, family-oriented, education-embracing, business-successful, tech-savvy, walking-on-water demigods). This inevitably births more clichés of ideal, iconic minorities.
Yes, clients are indisputably the top influencers of stereotypical advertising. They tend to fall into two camps: producing minority advertising for professional motives (i.e., it’s a business endeavor, the audience has proven to be profitable, etc.) or for political motives (i.e., it’s about satisfying minority-vendor quotas, fulfilling diversity goals, avoiding Jesse Jackson, etc.). The political clients are not inclined to rock the boat, and they usually display low interest in the creative concepts—and no interest in breakthrough thinking. They’re quick to suggest gospel choir events and telenovela promotions. Sadly, while the professional clients may proclaim their objectives are pure, they’ll also jump for gospel choirs and telenovelas.
It’s always peculiar to see clients hire agencies for their expertise, then dictate the content of the messages. While Ferrer blames “usually non-Hispanic” clients for the multicultural meddling, rest assured that minority clients are messed up too. In fact, minority clients running minority advertising may be the most blatant violators when it comes to pushing stereotypes, as many feel a heightened obligation to validate the efforts—and justify their jobs to their White peers.
There are infinite other factors igniting stereotypes in minority advertising. But as the opening remarks indicated, the arguments are becoming stereotypical. And we’re growing tired of perpetuating the problems.
Despite all the challenges, there are simple tactics for multicultural agencies to consider. First, don’t deliver stereotypical garbage. Strive to uncover fresh insights and dramatize the targeted benefits in outstanding ways. Granted, this requires that clients adequately fund research. Second, don’t hide from the “What’s fill-in-the-minority about it?” question. While it implies a concept must showcase overt cultural cues to gain approval, it can be repositioned. The inquiry should be, “Why will this concept strongly appeal to the fill-in-the-minority audience?” If the presentation answers that, you’ll be on the path to better solutions. Unless you honestly have a shitty client—or a caca client, for the Latino agencies.