Why Ads for Blacks Backfire

A controversial viral campaign from Summer's Eve proves that the ad industry still doesn't understand black consumers.

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In 2001, Toyota discontinued a print campaign that featured a gold-tooth-wearing black man with a Toyota emblem on his grill after Jesse Jackson threatened a boycott. The car manufacturer issued an apology and said it was trying to reach a "young and trendy audience" with the use of "tooth art."

Last year, an Australian KFC ad showed a white man at a cricket match surrounded by cheering black sports fans. He calms the crowd of rowdy black folks by raising a bucket of chicken in the air. And as recently as February's Super Bowl, Pepsi unleashed a commercial that played off the "angry black woman" stereotype. After kicking and shoving her man for making unhealthy food choices, a black woman throws a can of soda at a white woman who smiles at her man.

In its statement, the Richards Group mentioned the use of "multicultural experts," who were consulted during the creation of the Hail to the V campaign. The use of such experts sounds like a step in the right direction -- if these agencies actually listen to what they have to say.

"We are often called in after the concepts have been formulated, and our expertise is called upon to make sure the ads don't tick anybody off," says Brown. "I've had experiences when we've said no to a campaign and it goes forward anyway, with the mainstream agency saying, 'Well, we did vet this through our minority partner.' "

Solely placing the onus of common sense on diversity experts isn't enough. Ad execs of any color should be able to create ad campaigns that don't offend. And if they're not sensitive enough to know when a message has crossed the line, maybe they shouldn't be in a position to reach, and offend, millions.

Anderson says Summer's Eve's talking hands are far from the last stereotypical images we'll see in advertising, but he's confident that black consumers can make their voices heard.

"If we can even generate a portion of the energy we had during President Obama's campaign -- the mobilization -- we should be able to immediately flood email boxes and use social networks," he said. "Advertisers will get the message real quick."

Patrice J. Williams is a New York City-based writer. You can follow her on Twitter.

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