Summer’s Eve’s Hail to the V: Some Pitfalls of Racially Specific Ads
[Editor's Note 7/28/11: Summer's Eve has now pulled the Black and Latina talking-hand as, as well as the white one. Read on for more about the controversy. --Grace]
Last week, Summer’s Eve debuted an ad campaign with the tag line "Hail to the V!"
The campaign touched off a media storm -- not just via social media and ethnic-oriented websites, like The Grio, but also in mainstream media, including Forbes -- and even Stephen Colbert, who not only mocked the ads in last night’s show, but produced his own male-oriented hand puppets. "Hail to the V" has prompted over 100 tweets.
Most of the controversy around the campaign is not about the talking hand, which resembles the body part the company’s products are designed to freshen up, but that the hand comes in three different skin tones -- Black, Latina and White -- with accents and story lines that are presumably intended to portray those ethnicities.
The Black version (above), dubbed Lady Wowza, has stirred up the most controversy. The Latina version, titled Leopard Thong, has also been criticized, while the White ad has been criticized mainly for its lack of things to criticize.
For once, I am thankful for the underrepresentation of Asians, unless you count the silent geisha watching ninjas fight over her in another version of the “Hail to the V” ads, which features the great battles of history -- apparently inspired by maidenly V(irtue). Those commercials reportedly ran in some movie theaters before Harry Potter.
Some people say the Internets just have their panties all in a bunch. A few commenters on Twitter say the ads are funny:
Most of these are men.
Selling to, Not Selling out, Women of Color
What these Summer’s Eve ads bring up is the question: How big business can sell to women of color without resorting to caricatures? As an Asian woman, I’m used to seeing ads that show only White faces (or other body parts). When a commercial shows someone who looks like me, it gets my attention. But when an ad shows someone who looks like me, but with derogatory accents and stereotypes, that really gets my attention -- and not in a good way.
I spoke with Jennifer Chang Coupland, Ph.D., a professor of marketing at Penn State University and a member of the college’s diversity committee. Coupland says that in advertising to minorities, marketers can follow one of two paths: assimilation, in which an ad uses the same content as the mainstream one, but with people of color; or accentuation:
The second approach is accentuation, where the advertisers are intentionally calling attention to the differences, in effect, saying that they understand your needs. But you don't want to offend or bring out stereotypes.
Summer’s Eve's attempt to accentuate the differences has gotten noticed. The Latina and white versions of the talking hand have attracted over 100,000 views, and the African American one has gotten over 200,000 views –- all this on YouTube alone, where the videos have overwhelmingly been given the thumbs-down.
When Racially Specific Ads Work
But why different ads for different ethnicities? Is that necessary? Sometimes.
Coupland points out some marketing campaigns aimed directly at women of color have been very successful -– and well received -— such as Cover Girl’s partnership with Queen Latifah. But instead of just using an African American face to shill the same old goods, the products themselves filled a need for Black women: cosmetics for darker skintones.
Or this Kotex ad, in which a model walks onscreen and parodies the whole concept of demographic marketing by announcing, “You can relate to me because I’m racially ambiguous.”
While Summer’s Eve does not offer specialized products for different races, the company did give its ad agency, The Richards Group, license to reach out to diverse audiences in bold ways. Says agency founder Stan Richards in AdWeek:
"Summer's Eve gave us license to be bold, irreverent and celebratory across a multitude of mediums and to different audiences. We are surprised that some have found the online videos racially stereotypical. We never intended anything other than to make the videos relatable, and our in house multi-cultural experts confirmed the approach."
How could the firm's multicultural experts fail to run up a red flag that “Hail to the V” would be an epic fail?
On ABC News, Larry Woodard, CEO of Graham Stanley Advertising, says that the outrage against stereotypical portrayals of Blacks, Latinas and Asians is a clear wakeup call for Madison Avenue to get more minorities in management.
“The industry, in people, is relatively small, about 172,000 and overwhelmingly white. … With virtually no representation from people of color in the management ranks of the industry, the proper filters don't exist to create advertising that has the right balance of insight and information to credibly speak to the growing percentage of the population that is ethnic.”
It's no surprise that 86% of African-American women feel like companies have no clue when it comes to understanding who they are or what they need.
Improving race relations and encouraging diversity are not Madison Avenue’s main business. Making money, however, is. And women of color spend plenty of money on fashion and personal care. According to a recent report in the Atlanta Post, Black women spend $500 billion a year on hair care. And when you take into account that minority teens (Asian, Black and Latino) all spend more each month of clothes than their white peers, diversity and respect just make sense.