During the height of AMC’s Mad Men season, The Root debuted a Mad Men Black People Counter which tracked the number of Black faces on the show from week to week. Though the show was fictional, what isn’t fictitious is the
fact that diversity, equity and inclusion for the BIPOC community has not always been a goal in the advertising industry. And current numbers may suggest that diversification is still not an immediate priority.
The Association of National Advertisers’ (ANA) Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing (AIMM) published a study in 2020 uncovering that ethnic diversity in the marketing and advertising industry is still very low
for all job levels, especially for Blacks and Hispanics. Ethnicity represented in marketing departments of participating ANA board and other member companies overall was 29 percent multicultural in 2020 and 71 percent
White (Non-Hispanic.) Broken down by segment, in 2020 marketing departments overall were:
7 percent African-American/Black
10 percent Asian
8 percent Hispanic/Latino
2 percent Multiracial
2 percent Other/Not Listed.
Coupled with the unsettling lack of diversity in general market ad agencies, there are a host of other challenges that plague the industry. There are less than ten major Black-owned advertising agencies including Burrell (Toyota),
UWG (Ford), Walton Isaacson (Lexus) and Culture Brands, the newest ethnic agency and newly appointed agency of record for Hyundai, a South Korean auto brand. The multicultural media investments awarded to these agencies and publishers is only 5.2 percent of total advertising and marketing spending, according to another study sourced by ANA—even though multicultural
consumers comprise almost 40 percent of the total U.S. population.
Given the disproportionate budgets versus the Black U.S. population, Black-owned agencies are still tasked with proving out their marketing communications plans with supporting data. They are equally tasked with ensuring their messaging to Black consumers will be effective. To achieve this, they use the same research methods as their general market agency counterparts including the usage of focus groups. This research method involves a group interview involving a small number of demographically similar people or participants who have other common traits and cultural experiences.
Out of these focus groups, marketers get specific feedback and test strategies to learn whether they are heading in the right direction. In these sessions, colors may be tested, copy is tested—and the copy may include a certain
vernacular identical and used by the target market the campaign desires to reach. The focus group participants will certainly feel empowered to share their thoughts.
A humorous example of a focus group with three Black women
can be seen on HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show. Through the lens of comedy, Robin Thede and her castmates can be seen asserting their varying opinions in a focus group from hell— and literally overpowering the administrator, also a Black woman, leaving her bewildered. This comedic example of a focus group being conducted supports the concept that Black marketing firms work hard to hear and consider every voice.
In the current Hyundai campaign targeted to Black women, Culture Brands’ uses the phrase ‘OKAY Hyundai!. One of the actors in the commercial exclaims, “Okay Outfit!” to acknowledge and compliment her friend’s attire. In this
context, “Okay!...” is African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Other examples of these expressions are ‘y’all’, ‘on fleek’, ‘it’s lit’, and ‘bae.’ Marketers should use them with caution.
Some guardians of the culture can be concerned about marketers leveraging Black vernacular in campaigns if it comes off as disingenuous, appropriated, or misused. Others may want to protect against the Black community being
treated as a monolith. However, in Hyundai’s case, the phrase was used just as I’ve heard it used in the community; and, how I, myself, have exclaimed, “Okay! Outfit!” to compliment to acknowledge a friend or ‘auntie’ who came
sartorially correct. Moreover, Hyundai hired an ethnic agency led by a black female to prove this out.
OKAY is defined as a word that is used to express assent, agreement, or acceptance,” said Eunique Jones Gibson, CEO & Chief Creative Officer of Culture Brands. “In the African American community, placing OKAY before something is the quintessential way things worth noticing are
acknowledged. Together, it’s the perfect nod to Hyundai and to our prospective buyers.”
This proof will continually be sought throughout the marketing funnel for this and other black-targeted advertising campaigns. The next opportunity to test the efficacy of the campaign will be in the hands of publishers who will be
able to help spread the marketing message and measure ad recall, brand awareness, and consideration as well as traditional metrics such as clicks, impressions, or views. “As important as the cultural insights were to the creative, they were also used as a tool for the media placement,” added Erik Thomas, senior group manager, experiential & multicultural marketing,
Hyundai Motor America. “We are reintroducing Hyundai to the community as a viable option for new vehicle prospects, while showcasing the PHEV quality, benefits and capabilities of these vehicles.”
Prior to opening Culture Brands, Eunique Jones Gibson, a graduate of Bowie State University, has also worked as a photographer and activist. Her Because of Them We Can campaign which casts black children as Black historical figures was inspired by President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 elections overlayed with the birth of her two sons, Chase and Amari.
The lack of diversity found in general market advertising and marketing firms directly correlate to why ethnic agencies are keenly important. Gibson’s vision and point of view adds yet another layer to an industry that is still
struggling with the concept of diversity. Ethnic advertising agencies like Culture Brands serve as cultural guardians who attempt to safely navigate brands across cultural bridges to get their messages to specific ethnic target audiences.
This tour is not always perfectly executed. There are plenty of black-targeted advertising campaigns, and general market campaigns, that have either misfired or overstepped in some egregious way. Black Twitter is usually
a willing audience to let brands know of any offenses. However, through this cultural litmus test, I do not feel that Hyundai’s campaign misuses the cultural term, “Okay!” or oversteps either culturally or creatively.
The Culture Brands website includes a statement to support why ethnic agencies are important: To be clear, we are not a publishing company. We are an agency with our own media platforms and consumer brands. Our innovative model equips us with the insights to produce strategies and content that authentically engages the AA community.
The proverbial Black People Counter continues to slowly tick up. But in the meantime, the Black advertising agencies and the veterans who founded them like Byron Lewis, Thomas Burrell, Frank Mingo have set a stage where now black ad agency CEOs like Eunique Jones Gibson, Kent Matlock, Monique Nelson, Aaron Walton, McGhee Williams Osse, Fay Ferguson, Danielle Austen and others can continue to strive for industry diversity, fight for equity and continue the good fight of shifting and shaping the ever-evolving phenomena that is Black culture. Though budgets are not plentiful and diversity in the industry, overall, remains a challenge, the stakes are still high. The transformative images that these black ad agencies create are seen and heard around the world; and serve to address and correct negative stereotypes and tropes— and prove out that the Black consumer is not a monolith. Black ad agencies matter!