Avoiding Assumptions: How Racist Stereotypes Can Harm Your Marketing Strategy

stereotypesWhen considering the audience for your marketing strategy, it’s important to remember that in all actuality, not that many people fit the stereotype of the white, middle-class “average American” – especially if you happen to fall squarely into that category. Targeted marketing does attempt to rectify these assumptions, but when companies and agencies resort to using racist and cultural stereotypes in their marketing strategies, they inevitably lose a lot of their client base.

No Culture is a Monolith

“Sensitivity” and “compassion” are probably not words that immediately come to mind when people think about marketing strategies. Nevertheless, it’s easy to list advertisements that have failed on this front. Take the following examples.

Coca-Cola’s 2013 Super Bowl Commercial 

When this Coca-Cola advertisement aired on Super Bowl Sunday of this year, members of a number of American-Arab groups were furious. A representative from the Muslim Institute for Interfaith Studies noted that only did the advertisement depict the Arab characters as “backwards,” but, according to this NBC article, Coca-Cola did not even make room for them to “win.”

The advertisement depicts four different groups – the Arabs, leading camels and wearing keffiyehs; cowboys on horses; the “Badlanders,” a biker-style gang; and a bus of showgirls. The ad takes place in a vast, sandy desert, with the four factions racing toward a giant Coca-Cola bottle off in the distance. After the ad aired, Coca-Cola allowed consumers to vote on which faction they thought would win – and the Arab group was not included in the poll.

Dulce de Leche: Cutting Corners Doesn’t Work

Even targeted marketing relies on stereotypes to sell products. The Dulce de Leche Cheerios product was launched in 2012. The product website says that the new Cheerios flavor was “inspired” by the actual dulce de leche, a Latin American confection that the Cheerios brand calls a “thick caramel sauce.”

Dulce de leche is made by boiling down a mixture of milk and sugar, and has a number of iterations all across Latin America, from the Mexican cajeta to the Colombian arequipe. The Cheerios version? This Democrat Chronicle blogger says that it’s “a sugar rush that could solve the energy crisis” – and a disappointment.

The thing is, when the Cheerios brand created its version of dulce de leche, they were relying much more heavily on a stereotype – what they thought Latin@s would want – rather than actual marketing research. Dulce de leche is a multifaceted confection with a lot of specific regional versions; Dulce de Leche Cheerios are an American breakfast cereal that’s trying – and failing – to target a growing Latin@ buying demographic.

Sensitivity and Compassion

After the Coca-Cola ad aired, a member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) noted that the ad could very well damage the company’s relationship with the Arab community. The director of legal and policy affairs noted that Coke needed to practice some basic interpersonal skills: respect and understanding.

The same marketing concepts that should apply to any good marketing strategy also apply to simple compassion in marketing. It’s about not making assumptions. Assumptions crush productivity because instead of relying on research and statistics or, sometimes better yet, feedback from real people, strategies try and fail to target a certain demographic, as in the case with Dulce de Leche Cheerios. The people behind advertisements like the Coca-Cola Super Bowl commercial also failed to consider that part of their audience would actually be the kinds of people they were representing by relying heavily on stereotypes.

The answer, then? Being culturally and racially sensitive is important. And if you and your company haven’t considered your strategy’s implications outside of the “average (white, middle-class) American” demographic, it’s time to start. Do the research. See what people are saying. Seek to understand. Solicit feedback, and listen to it. When multiple American-Arab groups called out Coca-Cola, the company issued a statement to say that they had not intended to hurt anyone’s feelings – and they did not pull or modify the ad. The lesson? If you mess up, apologize – and do something to change your approach.

Have you ever run into trouble because of stereotyping? 

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Tree

Tree is a somewhat nomadic graduate student pursuing an MFA in Poetry and Literary Translation from Drew University. A self-identified “diplobrat,” she spent over 16 years living as an expat in countries like Guatemala, Bolivia, and Tanzania. Tree graduated from Smith College in 2012 with a degree in Spanish Language and Literature, a minor in Studio Art, and a concentration in Landscape Studies. In between writing poetry for school and content for CEM, she dabbles in goat herding and freelancing. Other interests include reading, watercolor painting, gardening, and traveling.

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