We need a commitment against racism in Canada

Ethnicity Matters' Howard Lichtman on the role multicultural marketing has in creating a more equitable industry here.

By Howard Lichtman

Last Thursday, a letter appeared in AdWeek with a commitment to do better. This letter, in the form of an ad, appeared in USA Today on Friday and in The New York Times on Saturday. The letter and commitment is from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and its multicultural arm, the Alliance for Inclusive Multicultural Marketing (AIMM). Its members include CMOs at leading CPG companies in the U.S. and several American multicultural agencies.

In this letter the members – as individuals and on behalf of their companies – make a commitment to do better as an advertising community. These are not just words – these are commitments by leading organizations to taking action. They are committed from a hiring perspective to make sure that the marketers, media companies, advertising agencies, production companies and service providers are reflective of America’s diverse ethnic population.

These leaders make commitments as it relates to a program AIMM has called “#seeALL,” which is all about eliminating bias through an accurate portrayal of race, identity and culture in advertising. AIMM has created a measurement tool, called CIIM, that measures the cultural acceptability and value of an ad against thousands of others.

The signatories also make a commitment to multicultural data and research. In Canada, there were many market research surveys on the changing attitudes and behaviours of consumers during COVID-19. We didn’t see any being done that reflected the ethnic consumer in Canada, so we worked with CulturaliQ International to create a Canadian survey. The results revealed many opportunities across categories – from consumer packaged goods to financial services, from home renovation to electronics.

But why did we have to take the initiative to conduct this survey? Shouldn’t marketers have been clamouring for the information?

The other interesting commitment is to multicultural marketing expenditures, so that the percentage of investment is commiserate with the representation of the multicultural people they serve. They say that the spend in the United States is unacceptable, currently at 5%.

To put that in Canadian context, if marketers in Canada allocated the commiserate share of their budgets to ethnic consumers, it would be 20% of “ mainstream” budgets. How many Canadian corporations are spending even 5% of their budgets on multicultural marketing?

Mainstream media is not effectively reaching ethnic consumers. There are lots of reasons for this, including that they are consuming in-language media and don’t see themselves reflected in certain ads. Even if you translate an ad or cast someone of colour in the ad, that is not enough. We joke that Google Translate is not a multicultural strategy, and that multicultural casting isn’t multicultural marketing. We have learned that it is more important to be “in culture” than to be “in language.”

“Okay, but they are seeing our ads in mainstream media.” Seeing some, yes, but getting the message? Not always.

Despite the deluge of advertising on mainstream media about staying safe during the pandemic from all levels of government, one of the hotbeds of the pandemic is Brampton, a city outside Toronto with a big South Asian population. Culturally, South Asians are programmed not to social distance. They often gather in large groups of family members and friends. If anyone needed to see and hear the message in their preferred medium, and culturally contextualized, it was them, and they were simply oblivious to the messages in mainstream media.

Our research shows that they were consuming ethnic media even more than before. There were mixed messages about what to do early on in the pandemic, including from WhatsApp messages to community gossip. But South Asians trust their local radio shows and TV anchors, so they tuned to ethnic media. Mainstream media didn’t have news from home about what is happening in India and Pakistan, so they consumed ethnic media. They also turned to South Asian cultural entertainment – from Bollywood to South Asian music and TV shows – to be distractions from the boredom of being stuck as home, great family time and being built-in babysitters for the kids.

There is no question that we as a society and an advertising industry have structural issues as it relates to the Black community. What are we doing about it? In Canada, we have many communities – from Black to Chinese to South Asian to Indigenous – that experience their own, different forms of racism. In our market research survey, one of the top issues for the Chinese Canadians was racism. They feared the looks that they would receive walking down the street, as people glance at them and hold them personally liable for being a source of the virus.

By asking these questions, we hope to open up a dialogue. We, like everyone else, are not perfect, but we have to make commitments to changes that have meaning. We are a signatory to the AIMM letter and we are fully committed to its principles. We would be happy to welcome others into the conversation.

Howard Lichtman is a partner at multicultural marketing and advertising agency Ethnicity Matters.