Pascal Blanchard analyses yet another advertisement currently running in France. This time he focuses on ethnic marketing’s hesitant début here, and the debate surrounding its use.
Everyone’s talking about it. Since France won the 1998 Football World Cup, colour appears to be in fashion in the world of communication. And now SFR has launched a press advertisement along the lines of the American IBM and Siemens ads. Ethnic marketing has definitely arrived! I can already hear the cries of indignation and see the scandal it is going to make. And yet, this type of advertising is very much « politically correct » with its character being well dressed, active, beautiful, in an airport (travel), clearly a corporate executive, perfectly integrated into consumer society, the business world and the French Republic. So, is advertising changing because there are now identifiable, profitable black consumers? No doubt. But, hang on. Ethnic marketing cannot be imported from the United States without a few changes to French society. And here’s why.
Anne Sengès’s book, Ethnik! Le marketing de la différence [Ethnik! The marketing of difference], launched by Autrement in April, seems to have consolidated this emerging trend, and given substance to the pending debate in France. Several factors have become apparent over the past 18 months: a considerable number of brands are using « ethnic » marketing, there is a growing presence of « visible » minorities in advertisements (newspapers, billboards and television), multi-cultural communications are being used to symbolise a culturally mixed France. These realities can be identified by us all. At the same time – paradoxically – most specialists concord in noting a French particularity in the field of ethnic communications and a kind of « block » against ethnically oriented communications. Targeting the Other signifies that the Other is seen as different, is labelled, singled out. This challenges the principle of standardisation of the French population, in a country where establishing statistics according to ethnic origin is outlawed. This type of advertising is seen as contrary to the values of the Republic.
Let us go back a couple of decades, to a time when the very first kinds of « differentiated communications » (in a given country, for distinct populations) were born in zones undergoing a struggle – the English or French colonial realms, the United States when segregation was still legal, South Africa during the 1940s, etc. Then, in the United States during the 1960s, the black populations were targeted more specifically through community media and specialist agencies (the first of these, Vince Cullers Advertising, was set up to target Afro-Americans in 1956, and SAMS was created for the Latin American population in 1962). Since then, all the major brands have specialised in the ethnic approach for targeting audiences. Nike, Coca Cola, L’Oréal, M&M’s, Mars, Ford, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, Procter&Gamble, etc. have all created specialist departments and recruited employees with ethnic profiles, appointed agencies and orchestrated advertising campaigns with this in mind. However, do not be fooled, the objective of ethnic advertising could hardly be less humanitarian – their aim is clearly to sell more, and better! This is what Alfred Schreiber reminds in Multicultural Marketing (Business Books, 2000), which has become the reference on ethnic marketing.
There are several types of ethnic marketing. The oldest and most in-ground – and most stereotypical – is the presence of the Other in the advertising universe. This is the ethnic icon. For almost 50 years, black, oriental, Asian, Jewish and regional (Basque, Corsican, Breton, etc.) characters have been used to claim our attention. Without wanting to generalise, for simplicity’s sake, this ethnic character is an object of the advertising discourse and generally fulfils four functions: to underline the product’s origin (Banania – although the origin is Caribbean rather than African), the colour of the product (Uncle Ben’s – antinomy of rice’s whiteness), the practicality or quality of the product (Behanzin – even a Negro can use this bicycle), highlight a humorous situation (Vahiné – a black person with a strong accent for a white flour). Most of these scenarios are still around today (see previous Black Logo articles).
The current register calls upon trend-setting heroes who are – for the most part – black, elite sports people (basketballers, footballers, golfers, boxers, etc.) or musicians. Ronaldo, Michael Jordan, Desailly, Tyson, Ray Charles and Michael Jackson have all become icons of the big brands. Zinédine Zidane is the reference for France. Caught between two ethnic worlds, he seems to be a perfect fusion, as is Tiger Woods in the universe of golf. They are hybrid beings, perfectly adapted to soft-ethnic marketing – because they reach multiple target groups. More than simply colourful foils or features of the scenery, they are the veritable promoters of the message – because they are the reference for rather than simply representatives of their communities.
The second type of ethnic marketing, very much present in American, Brazilian and English advertising campaigns – being both institutional and serving to promote specific products – is also very French. This is what could be called multicultural marketing. To be precise, this is the current « politically correct » trend that brings to life in images (billboards, press, TV, etc) a reflection of the society that we express ourselves in. To a certain extent, the SFR advertisement falls within the framework of the dual world of multiculturalism (being part of a wider campaign) and targeted ethnic marketing. These days you will not find a single campaign for the government, the RATP [Parisian public transport authority], SNCF [national railways], SFR [mobile phone operator], France Telecom, Nike and IBM that does not represent every single community. Several French brands even employ Benetton-style marketing techniques. For example, the 2002 campaign for bargain department store Tati was multicoloured with the following slogan, « Tati est à nous » (Tati is ours). Lately, for more complex reasons (notably due to the acquisition of companies specialising in ethnic products in the US), L’Oréal and Lancôme have also picked up the trend. Clarins’ Le Rouge campaign is a good example of this, featuring three models – one black, one Asian and one white.
The last form is hard-line ethnic marketing. This type is currently subject to the most debate in France. It is however less demeaning than the ethnic icon, which, in the majority of cases, belittles the other in the pure racist colonial tradition. It is also less ambiguous than multicultural communication, which, most often uses the other as a feature of the decor or as a character central to the advertising message, and that claims to be integrationist. In a country where the practice of identifying the other by their origin, producing statistics based on origin, and stating that consumer behaviour remains unchanged despite integration is not politically correct, one can easily imagine how difficult it must be for ethnic marketing to gain a hold. France has the highest level of immigration in Europe. It has been more strongly affected by colonial history than any other country in the world and is home to three distinct Asian, African and Oriental communities in what is known as the « French exception » and yet ethnic marketing is still taboo. Why? Because of the Republican principles of integration cement together French society. And yet, people seem to forget about ethnically targeted products such as Mecca-Cola and Bridel’s Laban range of milk products. Furthermore, during the last Ramadan, France Télécom issued out a phone card to call the three North African countries exclusively, with a press and billboard campaign in major French cities targeting the North African population. In fact, SFR could quite simple be taken to be copying a direct competitor.
In both the United States and Great Britain, the politically correct movement is so strong with respect to such issues that you can almost guarantee that ethnic communications agencies will have a black American to target the black population, a Mexican or Cuban for the Latin Americans and a Chinese person to target Asians. There is even Spike Lee’s agency to sell to and advise black American targets for American or European brands. The quest for ethnic targets is backed by an all-risks insurance policy providing the presenter with a clear conscience. « If it’s a well-known professional black who says so, then what I’m saying is not only legitimate, and most likely right, but also politically correct ».
You have to admit, in the face of this new situation (and this is only the beginning), under the pretext of protecting France’s national specificities, we have perpetuated a French-style colonial dialectic in our advertising vocabulary. Behind the myth of a single France, free of boundaries between its communities, any representations of its minorities must necessarily be excluded. On the one hand, France is one of the last countries capable of producing campaigns bordering on racism (Egg, Uncle Ben’s, Vinci, Opel, Banania and the Apéricubes advertisement featuring cannibalism, etc). On the other hand, the ethnic approach is condemned in the name of equality. This paradox is part of the French reality but it does seem somewhat hypocritical given that whenever the government runs a national campaign (such as Aids campaigns, for example), they specifically target these communities. Thus, such communities are seen as having problems, or being at high risk or being dependant and are therefore targeted as such. However, they are never seen as containing run-of-the-mill consumers. And, at the end of the day, this raises the issue of social exclusion in the poor immigrant suburbs. These communities are less-than-equal in the law. They are poorly integrated and on the edge of society. They do not even have an individual status as consumers in their own right. On this level it is therefore possible to say that France still functions within a « colonial approach » with respect to its populations of African or South-East Asian origin. In practice, we still rely on the clichés formed by earlier « non-decolonised » generations. We think for the other. And we think we know what is good for that other. At the same time, we reproduce extremely paternalist clichés that would be unheard of in Anglo-Saxon societies today.
Pascal Blanchard is head of the les bâtisseurs de mémoire communications agency.
[email protected]///Article N° : 5425