Racism in Corporate Marketing

In the last years before his historically catastrophic assassination, Martin Luther King used to lament to his closest comrades that he was “afraid we’re integrating ourselves into a burning house.” How apt that fear turned out to be is still under-appreciated. Among the burning rooms that has yet to be discussed is this one: corporate marketing.

The mainstream excuse for big business marketing is that it is simply a mirror that reflects pre-existing popular thoughts and desires. That, of course, is hogwash. Big business marketing is, in fact, a branch of “scientific management,” a.k.a. Taylorism. It is a conscious effort to study and profitably modify people’s off-the-job behaviors. In it, existing thoughts and desires are merely the problematic raw material, the animal habits to be molded in favor of the bottom line. In this endeavor, capitalist profit-seeking, not popular sovereignty, is the prime mover and the one true organizing principle.

Now, successful marketing campaigns have a great many logical requirements. Among them is the need to avoid upsetting the lowest common denominators in the target audience, as an upset “consumer” is not a money-spending “consumer.” Business success demands keeping as many “eyeballs” and “eardrums” quiescent as possible. Blissed-out folks shop; irritated folks switch you off or call the complaint line.

Among other things, this capitalist premium on non-controversy in salesmanship means that, to its very core, corporate marketing is racist.

Here’s why:

White people remain the largest racial group in the society. 400 years of white supremacy ideology continues to exert influence on their minds. Meanwhile, at least half of whites remain deeply ignorant and unconcerned with this problem. All this means that big business marketing campaigns must avoid poking the racial dog with its sticks. The result? Systematic and intentional stereotyping of non-whites — and especially blacks — in advertising.

Do you doubt this admittedly inflammatory claim? If so, I invite you to seek out the evidence, rare and closely-held as it is. Consider, for instance, what Ed Vorkapich, a long-time Pepsi-Cola advertising director, told a Smithsonian Institution interviewer about the rules of ad-making:

“You’ve got to be careful that the white guys don’t relate too much to the black girl and that the black guy doesn’t relate too much to the white girls.”

That, my friends, is behind-the-scenes corporate marketing in action. And, though inside information about big business marketing is top secret, it is a dead certainty that this premium on racist dramatic conventions continues to govern the making of corporate sales communications, not to mention the “content” of the shows they sponsor in order to attract audiences. In order to sell corporate products, blacks must be kept “in their place.”

This explains why African-Americans continue to be almost exclusively portrayed as athletes, musicians, buffoons, or (at best) sidekicks in advertisements and commercial TV shows and movies.

The impact of this reality is certainly subtler than white supremacy’s most infamous practices. Nonetheless, it is a huge mistake to dismiss this institutional problem as small potatoes. In a re-segregated society that has barely begun to face the profound legacy of its racist history, commercial-media viewing and listening is far and away the #1 leisure-time activity. As such, it is the chief source of both information and cognitive habits and in the nation. And the driving force behind it — big business marketing — relies on carefully managed racial stereotyping for its success.

This is smaller, lighter, thinner stuff than before, but I think its reach and its chilling effects on democracy and human dialogue are hard to overstate. It certainly ought to make us rethink the claims of our corporate overlords and their admirers and would-be emulators. With their annual (superbland) MLK Day advertisements and their increasing emphasis on “ethnic marketing,” they have painted themselves as part and parcel of the post-Civil Rights Movement national acknowledgment that racism is a bad thing that everybody should leave behind. Not quite.

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