After perpetuating racism, marketing/PR must step up

Systemic: The advertising/marketing/PR nexus shares particular responsibility for America's racist undertones, according to David Chauvin.

In the weeks following the brutal, inexplicable murder of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis by a man sworn to protect him, this country has faced a racial reckoning unlike any since the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

For days on end, protestors, the vast majority of them peaceful, have taken to cites in every state, on every day, fighting for justice, equality and an end to police brutality. Now is the time for each of us to examine our own privilege, to acknowledge how our inherent biases and ignorance have created and perpetuated a society built on racial inequality.

All of us must do this – particularly marketing, advertising and communications professionals like me.

It’s an unfortunate truth that all of us in the communications industry must face: Our field has done its fair share of perpetuating and propagating racism, for more than a century.

Marketing campaigns have long used racial stereotypes as a sort of short cut to convey ideas and promote products. Normalizing racist imagery and beliefs has had tragic consequences that we are only now beginning to comprehend. We have a responsibility to end this.

It was marketing that took Aunt Jemima’s repellant logo and turned it into a perverted icon of Americana. Through upbeat commercials and advertising materials, the Aunt Jemima “mammy” – a stereotypical and offensive characterization of an African American woman in blissful indentured servitude – became something normal and socially acceptable.

David Chauvin: Honest assessment.

This branding indulged racists in a fantasy of black compliance and subservience and taught generations of Americans that this was acceptable. We did this with Uncle Ben’s Rice and with Cream of Wheat and with Chiquita Banana and so many more.

What’s more, this is not a new conversation. These brands have survived through decades of redundant controversy – until now, with Quaker Oats (a subsidiary of PepsiCo) announcing this month that it will retire the Aunt Jemima brand, logo and packaging.

We all know firsthand how powerful branding can be. Just look at the National Football League. No need to beat around the bush here: The professional football team in the nation’s capital has an ethnic slur for a name.

A franchise valued at billions of dollars and a league with a combined value around $100 billion have decided, through years of branding and merchandising, that this is somehow OK. Our industry could do so much to discourage that team’s name and force ownership to change it, by simply refusing to market it.

Most people who work in our industry aren’t racist, but we have all, to some degree, profited off of racism. As a communication professional, I have found myself looking inward more often these past few weeks, trying to discover the ways in which I’ve fallen short.

It certainly hasn’t escaped me that I share a name with the officer who brutally murdered George Floyd. And while we share no relation, we do share in the privilege of our white skin. Acknowledging that, like all white people must do, is not easy. But it’s vital.

Advertisers, PR professionals, creative marketers, copywriters – this entire industry has immense power to shape our national conversation. We owe it to those less privileged to put this power to good use, to fight for true equality.

Talk with minority groups to help identify where your messaging might be contributing to systemic racism. Take an honest assessment of your marketing materials and branding. Educate yourself and be prepared to listen more than talk (a difficult proposition for communication pros, I know).

Most importantly, do something about any issue you identify.

“Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States,” W.E.B. Du Bois said. So much of that ignorance is on us, the communications professionals. Let’s each vow to use our platform to eradicate it, before it destroys us.

David Chauvin is executive vice president of Great Neck-based public relations firm ZE Creative Communications. and former director of communications for the Town of North Hempstead, among several government positions.


1 Comment on "After perpetuating racism, marketing/PR must step up"

  1. Mark J. Grossman | June 29, 2020 at 6:56 AM |

    David, as always, your comments and analysis are spot on. On this topic, a friend of mine recently said, “You Jews haven’t had it easy either.” And he’s right. But our skin is white and that makes all the difference. I have a one-year-old grandson who is the product of a white mother and black father, and I worry about the kind of world he will face growing up. Let’s hope that we are finally facing a turning point when it comes to race relations in the U.S.

Comments are closed.