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Racism in Corporate Marketing

In the last years before his historically catastrophic assassination, Martin Luther King used to lament to his closest comrades that he was “afraid we’re integrating ourselves into a burning house.”  How apt that fear turned out to be is still under-appreciated.  Among the burning rooms that have yet to be discussed is this one: corporate marketing.

The mainstream excuse for big business marketing is that it is simply a mirror that reflects pre-existing popular thoughts and desires.  That, of course, is hogwash.  Big business marketing is, in fact, a branch of “scientific management,” a.k.a. Taylorism.  It is a conscious effort to study and profitably modify people’s off-the-job behaviors.  In it, existing thoughts and desires are merely the problematic raw material, the animal habits to be molded in favor of the bottom line.  In this endeavor, capitalist profit-seeking, not popular sovereignty, is the prime mover and the one true organizing principle.

Now, successful marketing campaigns have a great many logical requirements.  Among them is the need to avoid upsetting the lowest common denominators in the target audience, as an upset “consumer” is not a money-spending “consumer.”  Business success demands keeping as many “eyeballs” and “eardrums” quiescent as possible.  Blissed-out folks shop; irritated folks switch you off or call the complaint line.

Among other things, this capitalist premium on non-controversy in salesmanship means that, to its very core, corporate marketing is racist.

Here’s why:

White people remain the largest racial group in the society.  400 years of white supremacy ideology continues to exert influence on their minds.  Meanwhile, at least half of whites remain deeply ignorant and unconcerned with this problem.  All this means that big business marketing campaigns must avoid poking the racial dog with its sticks.  The result?  Systematic and intentional stereotyping of non-whites — and especially blacks — in advertising.

Do you doubt this admittedly inflammatory claim?  If so, I invite you to seek out the evidence, rare and closely-held as it is.  Consider, for instance, what Ed Vorkapich, a long-time Pepsi-Cola advertising director, told a Smithsonian Institution interviewer about the rules of ad-making:

“You’ve got to be careful that the white guys don’t relate too much to the black girl and that the black guy doesn’t relate too much to the white girls.”

That, my friends, is behind-the-scenes corporate marketing in action, a direct quote from a practitioner of the routine corporate trade.

It is undoubtedly also the tip of an iceberg.  Though inside information about big business marketing is kept top secret from both corporate competitors and the general public, it is a dead certainty that Vorkapich’s explanation of the marketing premium on perpetuating racist stereotypes and dramatic conventions continues to govern the making of corporate sales communications, not to mention the “content” of the shows they sponsor in order to attract audiences.  The simple fact of the matter is that, in order to maximize corporate sales, marketing planners must be very careful to keep blacks “in their place” within both marketing campaigns and the marketing-sponsored shows that exist to “draw eyeballs.”  Realism and fairness, you see, don’t make money in a society that remains extremely ignorant and unapologetic about its long racist legacies.

Now, this behind-the-scenes rule of the corporate thumb might seem trivial.  It is not.  Watching commercial television remains far and away the number-one “free time” activity in the nation.  “New media” have also been largely subsumed under the corporate marketing juggernaut, and the future promises more of the same.  Hence, whatever principles and needs govern corporate marketing campaigns ipso facto also govern the force that massively dominates American culture, the commercial mass media.  And, by the way, racism in marketing also explains the continuing paucity of good roles for black actors.

I invite you to test this explanation for yourself next time you’re vegging out.  Go ahead, watch some TV, with Vorkapich’s admission about the requisite commercial orchestration of racial representations in mind.  You’ll notice that, particularly in advertisements, African-Americans continue to be almost exclusively portrayed as athletes, musicians, buffoons, or (at best) hipness-endowing (“I hang out with a black guy!”) sidekicks.

The impact of this reality is certainly subtler than white supremacy’s most infamous practices.  Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss this institutional problem as small potatoes.  In a re-segregated society that has barely begun to face the profound legacy of its racist history, where commercial-media viewing and listening is the number-one leisure-time activity and therefore the chief source of both information and cognitive habits, the driving force behind it — big business marketing — relies on carefully managed racial stereotyping for its success.

This is smaller, lighter, thinner stuff than old-school racial mind-policing, but I think its reach and its chilling effects on democracy and human dialogue are hard to overstate.  It certainly ought to make us rethink the claims of our corporate overlords and their admirers and would-be emulators.  With their annual (superbland) MLK Day advertisements and their increasing emphasis on “ethnic marketing,” they have painted themselves as part and parcel of the post-Civil Rights Movement national acknowledgment that racism is a bad thing that everybody should leave behind.  But there is no truth in this advertising.


Michael Dawson is a writer and sociology teacher living in Portland, Oregon, author of The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life (University of Illinois Press, 2005) and Automobiles Ueber Alles: Capitalism and Transportation in the United States (a book forthcoming from Monthly Review Press).  Visit his blog: <www.consumertrap.com>.



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