A Fearless Conversation On Race In Advertising

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

Wednesday night, I attended an event hosted by The Brandlab on “Race In Advertising.” Mike Lescarbeau, the event’s moderator, opened up the event by showing two recent and controversial commercials and asked for opposing viewpoints on each commercial from the crowd. The quote by George Bernard Shaw really hit the mark on the night’s topic. Advertisers are creating spots that are not connecting with the multicultural audiences that they are trying to reach. 


Getting positive and negative viewpoints on the use of race was a great opener for the panelists. One woman did not believe that the VW spot was offensive because while traveling, she had heard people of many different races speaking in an accent that was not expected of them. An opposing viewpoint to that was that the spot was offensive because of the stereotype it perpetuates. For the Taco Bell spot, one view was that bad translation was offensive. However, another woman thought that it fit the brand since it is Taco Bell. When she saw the commercial she felt as if she were in on the joke with Taco Bell. These varying viewpoints taught us how perception can vary by the individual and that advertisers need to be able to anticipate these situations.   

The panelists of the event were: Carla Vernon, Director Family Favorite Foods, General Mills; Alfredo Martel, SVP Marketing, Caribou Coffee; and Mike Fernandez, Corporate Affairs, Cargill. Each panelist brought a different and diverse perspective to the conversation. The clear consensus was that while a shift has already happened, ad agencies have been slow to move along with it. The times we live in are diverse and we need to keep up with the growing multicultural population.  

The panelists left us with a clear message that agencies need to keep up with the times or they will get left behind. During the conversation, Carla mentioned her family values and compared advertising to one of her main family missions; have a huge heart. I think that organizations like The Brandlab and Step-Up are doing a great job shifting our perspectives. However, I think that individuals could go one step further in mentoring and teaching minorities. A great example of this was how Carla has an all-star creative director from a smaller agency. Whenever the larger agencies are in, she makes sure he is in the meeting so that he can learn from all the talent.

I’d like to end with tying back to The Brandlab’s mission of creating opportunities for diverse students. I think that this is where we have to start to solve the problem of race in advertising. If we can teach and empower kids at an early age, I think we will find rock stars once they are ready to enter the workforce. Not only can the kids learn from their mentors but the mentors can learn from the kids. Let’s go outside our comfort zone and be daring!




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