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If You’re In Advertising You Might Be a Racist

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30,000 feet above Texas – I’m just leaving SXSW and I feel very content that we started a conversation that needed to be started.

I was on a panel titled, “If You’re In Advertising You Might Be a Racist.”

Ever since we walked off stage on Saturday, everyone I talked with had an opinion on how we cast, write briefs, target, profile, blah blah blah … It is amazing how much people have to say about this subject. These last few days in Austin I’ve heard from many people who saw our talk but were afraid to speak up. People from all over the country, whispering, “I loved your talk.”

And it’s no wonder. We are an industry full of opinions and never at a loss for a soapbox. So why is the race issue so hard to talk about? I explained to the crowd that I am of Italian decent. Three out of four of my grandparents are from Sicily. Even more specific, the city of Palermo. And while I like pasta, I don’t have it every day; I don’t think the “Godfather” is the greatest film of all time, and I’ve never been to Jersey Shore. My race doesn’t affect many of my purchasing habits. But race did have a positive effect on my childhood. My dad would often ask about a new kid he saw around. “Where are his parents from?” No one gasped or took offense. We answered, “He’s Greek.” Later when my dad would meet him, he would say with a big smile, something like, “Does your mom make Baklava? I love Baklava.” And we went about our day.

Enjoying food is a basic human feeling, so when we hyper-target or narrowcast, it’s about basic human emotions, not race. Even though race can play a part, it’s just one small part, further down on the list, of things that impact purchases. The Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology tells us that regardless of race, culture or language, the six basic human emotions are:
• Happiness
• Sadness
• Fear
• Anger
• Surprise
• Guilt

These human emotions have been around for a million years. It’s not a new thing the millennials made up.

Erin Swenson Gorrall, group planning director at Mullen Lowe in Boston says, “We have a lot of power and spend a lot of dollars. We should push this conversation forward and stop targeting Hispanic and African American moms saying they tend to be less nutrition-conscious. Race is not an insight.”

Also on my panel was a talented filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris who said, “Our identities are so much bigger than checking a box like black or Hispanic.” His film, “Though a Lens Darkly” explores the role photography has in shaping our identities, aspirations and social emergence. It’s an incredible film that proves we have the power though our creativity to produce images that are truthful, authentic and unique to our heritage.

Talking to another speaker at one of the private gatherings reminded me that some people still whisper the word racism. He leaned in and asked me, “did you think about making a joke?” I said, “Yes, I always think about making a joke, but this didn’t seem like the right place.” But I do believe humor can play a huge roll in our conversation about stereotypes.

My friend John Holmberg, a German guy, has made a career out of race humor and he’s a master at walking the tightrope of human decency. His satire, impressions and commentary are without equal. He said to me, “I try to pick on people equally because in the end, the advertisers care about only one color and that’s green.”

Dividing each other by race or religion is in the news every day. Advertising has an opportunity to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem and collectively, we have the most creative minds in the business. I’m happy to have opened up the conversation in such a big venue as South by Southwest. Change won’t be easy, it won’t come fast. But revolutions need steam to get them rolling. Let’s get a head of steam, folks. After all, it’s what we do best.

Read more about the panel discussion in Adweek, Campaign and Just Marketing News.