An interesting thing has happened in the advertising offices of Madison Avenue in recent times. The seed of something that took root nearly 20 years ago has taken hold and is blossoming into a fully-fledged flower. That something is advertising featuring African-Americans. For years the US advertising industry churned out ads featuring the ubiquitous thin, blonde, blue-eyed models that they believed consumers needed to see to be persuaded to buy their products. Back in the early Eighties the seed of doubt in this formula was planted by Benetton when it started using black models in its campaigns. That is not to say that Benetton always got it right though, as in its typical outspoken style it courted controversy, for instance, by creating an ad showing a white girl made to look like an angel and a black boy with devil-like horns. Interestingly enough, the balance has perhaps been redressed slightly in recent months by the launch of an Evian campaign showing an angelic image of a nearly naked African-American woman pouring Evian water from a cloud.
Other campaigns in the US that use African-American models include those for Pepsi, Visa, Candie’s shoes and Clairol. These ads are not just featuring these models because African-Americans are now an important target market, but as part of a deeper realisation that appears to have occurred, that beauty is not always white, blonde and thin. International African-American tennis star sisters Venus and Serena Williams have signed a three-year deal with Avon cosmetics that is estimated to be worth between $1m to $2m (&£690,000 to &£1.39m) a year for the girls. However, this campaign is not just for the US market, it is Avon’s first global advertising campaign that is set to run in 36 countries.
There have always been one or two forward-thinking marketing campaigns – those for the Procter & Gamble-owned Cover Girl brand, for example. Cover Girl make-up has featured black models since 1992 and now features the African-American singer Brandy. Furthermore, black models such as Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks have had very successful careers – but more thanks to the fashion industry than the advertising industry. The exclusive multi-million dollar contracts for Esteé Lauder and Revlon were not usually won by black women and have instead been won by the likes of Liz Hurley and Cindy Crawford. However, the tide looks like it is turning.
Although these campaigns are not specifically targeting black consumers, there are very good reasons why US advertisers are realising the importance of this group. Marketers should keep a close eye on the demographics of the US: they have changed significantly over the past ten years. According to US Census data, the proportion of white-Americans declined from 76 per cent of the total population in 1990 to 69 per cent of the total in 2000. African-Americans constitute 12.1 per cent of the population. According to middle-series population projections, between 1995 and 2020 the African-American population is expected to grow more than twice as fast as the white population, reaching 45.1 million. Another factor that makes this group more attractive, to marketers of youth-oriented products, is that the African-American population is, on average, younger than the total population. Nearly one-third of the nation’s black population was under 18 in 1999, versus 24 per cent of the white population.
All the indications show that this is a group to watch and target. According to The Buying Power of Black America, a report published each year by Chicago-based research company, Target Market News, the income earned by black households in the US has increased by $50bn (&£34.95bn) each year since 1997. That means a 48 per cent increase in earnings, from $367bn (&£256.5bn) to $543bn (&£379.6bn) in the space of three years. The research also shows that it is the women in these households who are becoming more influential in determining how the money is spent. Avon, Cover Girl and other personal care brands are making wise moves with their campaigns featuring black models. In 2000, black women spent more per capita on personal products than any other demographic group. These women are also more likely to be reached by campaigns in magazines and newspapers, as black households’ spending on print media increased by eight per cent in 1999, while white households spend decreased 13 per cent in the same period. As a whole, black households are emerging as the biggest consumers of media and information and the signs are that they are more receptive to advertising messages than whites. On average, they invest more time and money on information and communications. The time spent by African-Americans using computers and the Internet as well as watching TV and listening to radio is higher than that spent by white Americans.
The Food Marketing Institute recently released The African American Grocery Shopper 2000, a research report jointly sponsored by Kraft and P&G. This study adds interesting insight into the habits of black shoppers and, perhaps most significantly, it points out the differences between African-Americans and other ethnic groups in preferences, habits and attitudes. The results were based on telephone surveys with 800 African-Americans and 205 non-blacks. The leading influence on purchase decisions for these shoppers is newspaper advertising (58 per cent), followed by in-store displays (57 per cent). By comparison, only 47 per cent of non-black shoppers said they were persuaded by ads in newspapers. The preference for well-known brand items is strong among African-Americans and further reinforces the importance of this group as a target for marketing campaigns. More blacks than whites said they would only consider buying established brands (32 per cent versus 26 per cent).
Given all the economic and demographic factors, it seems amazing that advertising imagery in the US has excluded or marginalized African-Americans for so long. This is a group of young, forward-thinking early adopters with money in their pockets and a high level of brand loyalty. The new, high profile advertising campaigns seen all over the US are surely just the start of something bigger. And about time too, Madison Avenue.
Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive who is now working as a freelance writer in New York