If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Black people should feel like the most flattered demographic in America. Black culture is where White America goes shopping for Halloween and “slumming” to sow its wild oats. This appropriation extends to marketers looking for inroads into a community whose buying power is touted but whose lives are dispensable. Well, I, for one, am tired of Black culture carelessly being used to market any and everything, especially to Black people.
Targeted marketing is indispensable to the advertising industry. But mining #BlackTwitter and the Top 40 charts for material fails when the mainstream does not understand how to compartmentalize Black culture. Most enactments of Black culture in advertisement reinforce tired stereotypes because that’s how mainstream culture really sees us.
Why is this problematic? Black cultural artifacts do not have the luxury of being assigned subsets. Anything “urban” = Black. Hip-hop = Black. Sassy mamas = Black. The whole subsumes the part and so you have rap (which some-but-not-all Black people like) being used to market to “urban” audiences in general. Because Black.
Pancakes, you look good, won’t you back that stack up.
— IHOP (@IHOP) October 7, 2014
[typography font=”Josefin Sans” size=”22″ size_format=”px” color=”#ff0f0f”]Marketers heap on the “sass” and the “hip-hop,” not realizing that most Black folk just like their pancakes with syrup, not neck rolls.[/typography]
As Twitter continues to grow, brands are starting to keep an eye out for the latest slang to trot out to Black audiences. It initially works because the tweets are seldom outright offensive. The aim is to draw attention to the product or company through familiarity and humor. I can’t say if those laughs translate to click-throughs and conversions, but Twitter’s currency is in RTs and favorites. Those “urban” marketing tweets get plenty of traffic.
Black culture–or any subsection thereof–is often a punchline in the hands of White people. What I mean is this: If a rich white woman puts on baggy jeans and wears cornrows and throws up “gang” signs, we know she is joking. Playing ghetto is always fun for those who do not live in one. Miley Cyrus can declare that twerking is over and the Nae-Nae is the new It dance because she consumes Black culture without investing in or producing it.
A brand using Black slang in official tweets is like having a White friend who only talks “jive” around Black people. The one who says “Whassup” to those with more melanin and “Good morning” to people who look like them. Use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) oftentimes misses the mark and betrays outsider status (no one says “whassup” any more). Furthermore, the advertising is usually inconsistent with the brand’s marketing strategy as a whole.
Taco Bell on fleek. — Taco Bell (@TacoBell) October 18, 2014
[typography font=”Josefin Sans” size=”22″ size_format=”px” color=”#ff0f0f”]Hint: I don’t need any biscuits marketed to me with a “honey chile.” Just honey.[/typography]
Before Netflix switched up their stable of shows no one watched, I was pretty hooked on a reality contest show called Pitch Wars. Pitch Wars pitted two marketing firms against each other for a big brand’s business. Every other episode, some bright-eyed and bushy-tailed marketing exec felt that slapping a rap on a commercial would attract a young, urban market. For Hardees, bruh? Really?
It’s not just Twitter or television marketing, either. Remember Khia’s infamous “My Neck, My Back?” This Khia cover song from a car accident radio spot airs frequently on “urban” channels in the Atlanta metro area. It’s funny; I admit it. But then I have to ask myself how does this “reputable” company marketable itself on non-Black channels, and what makes this acceptable for Black audiences?
You could argue that these tweets, commercials and radio spots mean nothing other than an easy laugh. But consider this: easy laughs at Black folk have long been used to market products in this country. The Quaker Oats Company employed several Black women to pose as Aunt Jemima in person, complete with audio advertisement, “I’se in town, Honey!” Oh, those charming, backwards Blacks must know how to make good pancakes, right? Hyuk.
That sassy, mammy-derived character has as its descendants the Pine-Sol lady, the Popeyes “chef,” and countless other characters used to hawk wares with “mhmm,” “sista girl,” and “baby!”
[typography font=”Josefin Sans” size=”22″ size_format=”px” color=”#ff0f0f”]So what would be a better alternative? Authenticity.[/typography]
IHOP doesn’t need to hearken back to a 15 year-old rap song to sell me pancakes; photos and their normal marketing do just fine. AAVE means more to its community than just a marketing tool to target Black audiences disingenuously.
And to big brands? We see you. We know that’s not how you usually advertise, that Black culture is merely a costume you put on to make us laugh and buy your products. At the end of the day, we don’t want you sitting with us when you are really laughing at us. Honey chile.