Switching the Code: Advertising to an Increasingly Diverse Consumer

Posted on October 30, 2018

Code-switching has always been a part of society but has become especially discussed with the releases of such films as Sorry to Bother YouBlacKkKlansman, and The Hate U Give. It is an action that some people feel they must take every day, and it’s the subject of much scrutiny in America in 2018.

If you don’t know, code-switching in this context is the act of editing one’s speech to match their audience’s expectations, usually to mitigate perceived cultural or racial differences. It’s often an implicit mental action that occurs without second thought. However, the expectation that people should code-switch often results in furthering racial and ethnic divides. Perhaps you’re wondering, “Tucker, what does this have to do with e-commerce?” Admittedly this is an uncomfortable issue for some to discuss, and I have a certain amount of discomfort presenting this as a straight, white male. But I believe some of the advertising actions that many big brands are taking can help bridge the racial divide, and move us forward to a harmonious, but culturally sensitive future.

Hopefully, you’ve noticed that in the past few years, commercials and television, in general, have become increasingly diverse. There is greater representation for underrepresented communities than ever, and this has lead to a broader acceptance of multiculturalism. America is supposed to be a melting pot, and it seems our consumption of media has finally come to reflect this. What you might not have noticed, is that companies have begun to specialize their advertisements to be representative of the cultures consuming them, and have sought to celebrate the uniqueness of those cultures.

Consider the “Let’s Go Places” ad campaign by Toyota. When Toyota began its campaign to market the 2018 Toyota Camry, it made a unique, progressive choice to feature commercials that specifically targeted different cultural blocks. A 2017 New York Times article dissected the campaign, saying, “People [tended to see] different commercials based on whether they [were] watching “Scandal” on ABC, which tends to have a high number of African-American viewers, or a show on the Spanish-language network NBC Universo, according to the [Toyota’s] ad agencies.”

In short, Toyota was advertising ads featuring African-American cultural staples during programs with high African-American viewership, ads featuring Hispanic cultural staples during programs with high Hispanic viewership, and so on so that each distinguished cultural group was represented by truly representative advertisements. When I first read this, the skeptic in me wondered if this was simply a campaign designed by very few to cynically target groups based on stereotypes of race, gender, or culture. This was not the case.

The Toyota campaign was “developed jointly by a group of four ad agencies — one general agency and three that specialize in each ethnic group (African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American).” The resulting ad campaign was wildly successful, as the group vice president and general manager of Toyota’s brand, Jack Hollis, said, “if a person of any group is looking for communication that is like them, that looks like them specifically, the good news is because of the breadth of something like a Camry campaign, they can find it.” By choosing to embrace race and culture rather than fearfully declining to see ethnic differences, the company was able to reach broadly across a spectrum of consumers and create feelings of inclusivity and tolerance. The Toyota Camry was the second highest selling car of 2017. If that’s a failure, then all brands should aspire to that level of failure.

It’s not just limited to racial and cultural relations either. Tommy Hilfiger has just begun advertising with a wildly successful and acclaimed line of clothing for the disabled. Aerie has begun utilizing the services of plus-sized models. Nike made a booming statement when it announced that Colin Kaepernick would spearhead it’s revitalized “Just Do It” campaign. Advertisements can speak to audiences as they speak to themselves without expecting one single ad to suit all people. Cultures are different and resonate with different aspects of advertising. It’s unfair to expect all consumers to conform to a singular, narrow identity. Inclusivity seems to be the way of the future in advertising, which can only be a positive thing, in my opinion.

With that said, it’s important to be careful when designing your brand’s next advertising campaign. It is important to avoid tokenism, where different cultures are cynically included to promote sales, rather than a unifying message. A certain critically panned Pepsi ad comes to mind that both trivialized serious issues, and caused further discord.

Racial and cultural relations have come a very long way since the dawn of mass advertisement, but there is still a way to go yet. By taking up the mantle of inclusion, and speaking to audiences as they speak to other members of the same audience, as other cutting edge brands have done, your brand can aid in propelling us toward a better, more diverse future.