The Art of Stereotypes

I want everybody to picture a Chinese marketing manager. He’s overseeing the entry of authentic pre-made dumplings to Australia. His target market are suburban “true blue” Australians who like a bit of oriental cuisine, but find going to the crowded stores in Chinatown to hunt through suspicious products in foreign languages rather intimidating.

“Well first of all I know Australians like Green and Gold” he says to his copywriter, “make all the ads green and gold”. “We’ll plaster the adverts all over the Cricket and NRL matches!” he loudly declared to no one in particular. “Better yet, can we get one of the sporting stars to endorse our dumplings?”

“Australians may not be used to chives and dried shrimp, we should also create a range of flavours for them” he said on the phone to R&D. “And I want to really speak our consumers’ language, we should never fail to refer to our consumers as ‘mate’”.

“…on second thoughts, Australians like blue even more I think, make some adverts blue”. Six weeks later, ‘Shane Warne’s Bangers and Mash Dumplings’ (“full of fair dinkum flavour”) is ready for launch. Seems farcical right? Yet we often do this in ethnic advertising. We assume that cultural traits apply to everyone within the culture, and this quickly becomes patronising, if not extremely superficial.

Lahle Wolfe writes in Women in Business: “You cannot peg individuals into mass impersonal groups based on stereotypes” and “the more you see and treat customers like individuals, the more loyal they’ll be to your business”.

What applies to gender stereotypes applies to cultural stereotypes as well. Gary Nelson, creative director at Organic, a US multicultural ad agency, described his frustration with seeing a tyre store advert where a black woman danced incessantly to hip hop. Media is rife with such adverts, from huge Hispanic family gatherings to a black woman shaking her booty in the office.

Sure, the (very clichéd) relevance to the ethnicity is achieved, but where is the relevance to the product?

“As a Black man in the advertising industry, I find myself struggling with the ethnic marketing question.” Nelson said “most consumer needs (both retail and beyond) are cross-cultural… such campaigns don’t have to revolve around tired clichés and lowest-common denominator stereotypes.”

Indeed, such stereotypes are not only ineffective, but can be patronising or insulting. They also assume incorrectly that consumers are incapable of empathising with people of a different ethnicity. The sooner we gain a holistic understanding of ethnic minorities as individuals, with both differences and similarities to so called mainstream audiences, the sooner we better communicate to ethnic communities, and the sooner black women can stop needlessly dancing to sell tyres.

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