Sleazy Or Savvy Marketing?

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Does this look like an organic gathering to you?

Does this look like an organic gathering to you?

About a year ago I found myself sitting in meeting after meeting about “marketing diversity.” I was the one-woman marketing department at a small private university and the numbers had just come back that our student population was not at all reflective of the community at large and we were constantly brainstorming how to fix it.

Somehow the conversation always ended with “You should photograph Darnell because he is Black.” Needless to say these conversations made me frustrated, uncomfortable and angry, but ultimately I wasn’t calling the shots.

I would turn up at Darnell’s desk an hour later with the camera. He would laughingly ask, “You need another diverse shot of me?”

Diversity does not mean featuring pictures of the one Black person we have access to. Diversity also is not that stock-marketing photo of the red-headed geek, the hip Black athlete, the Latino boy, his Asian girlfriend and their friend in a wheelchair all arranged conveniently around a table sharing a laugh. We ended up using that one a lot too.

The problem is, you can’t market diversity if what you are selling isn’t diverse.

However, I do believe it is important for all people to see themselves represented in popular culture and advertising.  As a human, I think this is a necessity to promote actual diversity in organizations, it’s one piece in the puzzle to even the playing field for women, minorities and people with disabilities.

As a marketer though, I know the best way to sell someone something is to make a personal connection with them, make them really see themselves not just using the product but living the life the product will give them. I just wish we could learn to be a little more organic, it’s insulting and pathetic that we have to stage these tacky shots. Do they even work?

They do. As a predatory example, just look at the long history cigarette companies have with marketing menthol cigarettes to the Black community. 78% of menthol smokers are Black. Menthol cigarettes are more addictive than a regular cigarette because the menthol smoker is addicted to the menthol as well as nicotine. Additionally, the cool feeling on the throat allows the menthol smoker to hold the smoke in a little longer, intensifying the damage done. Whether or not these cigarette companies are trying to kill Black people faster than the average smoker (I don’t think so, what company wants to kill their customers faster?), they have specifically targeted them over the last 75 years. A few examples of effective, racist targeted marketing:

But that was then, this is now. Technology has allowed marketers to not just be more racist, sexist and generally terrible predatory human beings but invading personal lives for profit to a terrifying extreme, and disguise it in a way in which you won’t even know it’s happening, and boy does it work!

Now let me be clear, I am not opposed to data mining. I like using free services like Google and Facebook, I use them every single day and they enhance the efficiency of my work and communications. I know in order for them to exist they need to turn a profit and recruit top talent.

I also don’t mind most targeted ads based on my searches or information I voluntarily hand over to them in exchange for their service. If I drive by a billboard for dog food and I don’t have a dog, the advertiser’s money has been wasted on me and I didn’t get any information that is useful. But if Google knows I like Radiohead and live in Oakland, CA and decides to show me ads for ticket sales for a show in San Francisco, then we both are satisfied with the transaction. I want to know about things that interest me, and I assume you do, too.

But the flip side is that they don’t stop at showing me the ads for the Radiohead show in San Francisco. A close friend had an ectopic pregnancy last December. She Googled her symptoms to determine if she could be pregnant as soon as she missed her period, the she searched her symptoms when she knew she was pregnant and felt something wasn’t right. When the pregnancy did turn out to be ectopic, it had to be terminated (ectopic pregnancies are life-threatening). Google stored all her pregnancy questions and to this day she is bombarded with diaper and formula ads. They think she is six months pregnant and expecting parents are the holy grail of consumers. It is a constant and invasive reminder of something she would like to forget.

New Baby = Marketing Gold

New Baby = Marketing Gold

People develop shopping habits, they lock into particular products or places they shop and they usually keep doing that. Marketers know that the only time people are susceptible to changing these shopping habits are when they go through major life changes: moving away to college, buying a house, getting married and especially– especially— when they start having children.

Target has created an elaborate system, as covered by Charles Duhig in the New York Times,  to track women’s purchases and determine when they are pregnant, predict a near accurate due date and send women targeted ads throughout her pregnancy and after the child is born to enforce the habit of shopping at Target for things for the pregnancy, the baby– all the way up to buying goods for the college dorms.

How do you protect yourself from aggressive marketing without dropping out of consumer society, which in America means dropping out of society in general? How do we promote diversity without being so completely abrasive, tacky and offensive? Personally, I believe the only way to change these aggressive practices are to change how you spend your money. Research the companies you buy things from regularly, show your support for good marketing practices with your dollar. Buy local. Talk about it.