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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Presumably, the black talking vagina was intended to appeal to the black woman — to be relatable. I’m a black woman with a black (nontalking) vagina, and I was not amused, entertained or compelled to purchase Summer’s Eve products. And it’s safe to assume that Latinas didn’t give a thumbs-up to their “Ay yi yi” ad. Advertisers can’t really think they’re relating to us when they use blatant, negative stereotypes. Can they?

But even if the ads failed the relatability test, did they fail to promote the product? David W. Brown of Brown Partners, a minority-owned advertising and marketing firm in Philadelphia, is reluctant to go that far. “It all depends on what the campaign was intended to do. It is definitely getting broader exposure as a result of getting pulled than if it was a straight-up media buy.”

If attention was the desired effect, then the commercials were definitely a success. But Summer’s Eve isn’t the only company that goes too far in the quest to create a buzz.

“This is not the first time, and of course it won’t be the last time” that a company uses stereotypes to sell a product, says Al Anderson, founder of Anderson Communications and a 43-year marketing and advertising professional. “This is just a long history of disrespectful advertising. [General-market advertisers] think they know everything about us, when they know nothing.”

Back in the day, companies sold products using gross caricatures of blacks — exaggerated red lips, bulging eyes — and capitalized on stereotypes about blacks’ intelligence. Today we have ads that are less blatantly racist but just as offensive.

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.

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