Ever see an inner-city schoolyard filled with white, Asian and black teens shooting hoops? Or middle-aged white and Latino men swigging beer and watching the Super Bowl on their black neighbor’s couch? Or Asians and Latinos dancing the night away in a hip-hop club?
All it takes is a television.
Yes, that mesmerizing mass purveyor of aspiration, desire and self-awareness regularly airs commercials these days that show Americans of different races and ethnicities interacting in integrated schools, country clubs, workplaces and homes, bonded by their love of the products they consume.
Think about one of Pepsi’s newest spots, “Refresh Anthem,” which debuted during the Super Bowl. The ad, which features Bob Dylan and hip-hop producer will.i.am, is a collage of images from the ’60s and today that celebrate generations past and present.
Whites and blacks are shown returning from war, surfing, skateboarding, dancing and waving American flags at political rallies, while a boyish Dylan and a present-day will.i.am take turns singing the Dylan classic, “Forever Young,” each in his signature style.
Or, take the latest hit spot from E-Trade, which stars the E-Trade Baby, a 9-month-old white boy, and his newest buddy — a black infant who, from his own high chair, agrees with the wisdom of online investing even in a down economy.
Ads like these are part of a subtle, yet increasingly visible strategy that marketers refer to as “visual diversity” — commercials that enable advertisers to connect with wider audiences while conveying a message that corporate America is not just “in touch,” racially speaking, but inclusive.
For much of the past century, “minorities were either invisible in mainstream media, or handed negative roles that generally had them in a subservient position,” says Jerome Williams, a professor of advertising and African-American studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
To advertisers, these “multiculti” ads are simply smart business — a recognition of a new cultural mainstream that prizes diversity, a recognition that we are fast approaching a day when the predominant hue in America will no longer be white.
And yet, some critics wonder if depicting America as a racial nirvana today may have an unintended downside — that of airbrushing out of the public consciousness the economic and social chasms that still separate whites, blacks and Latinos.
Even on Madison Avenue, which is generating the inclusive messages, recent studies find few nonwhites in decision-making and creative positions within the advertising industry itself.
Are multiculti ads, then, an accurate barometer of our racial progress, a showcase of our hopes in that direction — or a reminder of how far we still have to go?
Might today’s ads also be implanting false assumptions that our race problems have been fixed, that all Americans are living comfortable, upper-middle-class lifestyles in racially harmonious settings?
Charles Gallagher, chair and professor of the sociology department at La Salle University, worries about just this.
“If you were to come down from another planet and watch TV, you’d think that all of these human beings share a lot of intimacy, regardless of the way they look,” Gallagher says. “But the reality is, people of different races don’t share social space like that.”
An ad showing Latinos and Asians eating potato chips at a softball game or whites and blacks sporting pricey watches while dining out can, he says, “hide the fact that poverty disproportionately affects certain groups.”
Indeed, African-Americans’ median income is just 61 percent that of whites, and blacks are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed, government figures show. Whites 65 or older receive 25 times as much income from retirement investments as elderly blacks, and poverty rates for black children are 2 1/2 times higher than for whites.
“My students always say to me, ‘Isn’t it better to have these ads? It’s kind of a fake-it-’til-you-make-it kind of thing,”’ Gallagher says. “The problem with that, I tell them, is that distortions and false impressions never do anyone any good.”