Pushing the ethnic envelope

Back in the mid '90s, a small San Francisco-based magazine called Might posed this controversial question: Are black people cooler than white people?

Back in the mid ’90s, a small San Francisco-based magazine called Might posed this controversial question: Are black people cooler than white people?

Donnell Alexander, the author of the piece, answered in the affirmative, declaring himself a ‘cool nigga’ who reads ‘fashion magazines like they’re warning labels telling [him] what not to do.’

It touched on the beginning of a now-overwhelming phenomenon, explored further in this issue’s Special Report article ‘Ethnic Cool,’ on page 15, whereby teens look to minority groups as fashion role models. Not because they see it as a means to show their politically correct support, but as a new vehicle to distance themselves from the mainstream, including the holier-than-thou celebs featured in InStyle.

Consider this from Alexander: ‘… when America looks for cool we look to black culture. Countless new developments can be called great, nifty, even keen. But, cool? That’s a black thang, baby.’

Today, hip hoppers know that what they wear will be adopted not only by inner-city youth, but also by white kids from the burbs. There isn’t anything edgy about Tommy Hilfiger’s fashion design, for example, but after rappers claimed the label in 1995, white teens also appropriated it, because the brand offered them the ability to wear preppy clothes and still feel like rebels.

Some youth marketing consultants proclaim that while ethnic cool might be all the rage in the States, in Canada it is less significant, partly due to a smaller minority population. Max Valiquette, president of Youthography in Toronto, takes it further, explaining that American kids are staging a backlash against their so-called melting pot environment, donning fashion labels that reflect their heritage as a badge of identity. In other words, by emphasizing their cultural backgrounds they not only differentiate themselves from other Americans, they also thumb their noses at the status quo. Here in Pierre Trudeau-land, where the development of a cultural mosaic has been called the stitching in our national fabric, kids are less likely to wear their ethnic backgrounds on their sleeves, simply because it doesn’t have quite the same impact.

Nonetheless, Canadian brands are more inclined to reflect our cultural mosaic these days. Two recent Canadian spots, one for Bell Mobility’s Solo prepaid program and an ‘Out of The Blue’ commercial from Labatt Breweries star young black men, suggesting that the trend to portray ethnic diversity has flowed not only across the border, but into broader demographics, too.

But is ethnic cool actually a factor for kids in this country? We can’t deny that our teens mimic the youth masses south of the border. There’s a reason why Destiny’s Child was recorded as one of the top 10 albums in Canada by SoundScan for the last week in July. Kids here listen to American music and watch American movies and TV shows. Let’s face it, there’s no escaping the cultural influence of the behemoth U.S. media machine, especially among teens, most of whom have never heard of Peter Gzowski.

Indeed, there are a few Canadian brands shrewd enough to portray stylish people of colour in their advertising. But, for some reason, most are reluctant to admit that this has anything to do with taking advantage of the ethnic cool fad. Instead, they are quick to point to all the PC reasons for doing so: just the sort of explanations their trend-obsessed youth following would balk at.

Why won’t they admit that it makes good marketing sense to capitalize on ethnic representation in advertising? Perhaps they believe that once kids clue into their motives, they will be considered as authentic as Britney Spears’ cleavage. As major mainstream brands like Coca-Cola and Nike swoosh onto the scene, the notion that brand credibility can be attained through images of cultural diversity is likely to melt away.

But the smartest marketers have already recognized this risk and moved on. Diesel Jeans, which always strives to be on the cusp – outwardly supporting the gay community long before the days of Will & Grace, for instance – refuses to endorse any chart-hogging Latin American or hip-hop musicians anytime soon. The denim manufacturer acknowledges it needs to constantly rediscover the next best thing. Hence, while its recent, successful campaign ‘The Daily African’ is a portrayal of a minority group, it is also a brilliant satire of American ignorance toward the continent, one that particularly mocks celebs who engage in charity work for places they can’t even spell.

Cultural diversity with an edge – what could be cooler than that?

Lisa D’Innocenzo

Senior Staff Writer