Profit or Prejudice? Race Sensitivity Creates New Marketing Risks
When Pepsi-Cola President Walter Mack recognized his company could sell more product to black Americans in the 1940s, he initiated a racially-targeted marketing effort to increase sales. It worked and the company’s market share rose dramatically in just a few years. The strategy was so successful, some inside the company were concerned it might be off-putting to white consumers, prompting Mack to declare that Pepsi would not, “become known as a n—-r drink.”
This infamous racial slur, unapologetically stated in the presence of African-American ad executives, ran through my mind after reading media reports about the racist emails from Atlanta Hawks basketball team owner Bruce Levenson in 2012. For many black-owned small-business owners like myself, it sounded infuriating. Here was another rich, entitled, white man using his business as a cover to demean the black customers who fueled the resurgence of his NBA franchise, not to mention his fortune. The emails were such that Levenson was compelled to surrender ownership of his property.
But the media coverage reflects very little of Levenson’s actual correspondence. Although parts of it are uncomfortable to read, nothing struck me as racist or out of line. This was no repeat of Mack’s characterization of black Americans; Levenson’s sin was to recognize the fact that different groups of people have different levels of discretionary income to spend on pro basketball.
Levenson’s email repeatedly called into question profits and low ticket sales and never once did he refer to the culture or team as being too black. All he wanted to do was increase sales. If anything, his email revealed his thoughts about Southern whites not what he thought should be happening. He was observing the reality on the ground.
How are Levenson’s observations any different than what Hollywood does in deciding which films to produce? You may recall director and producer George Lucas telling Jon Stewart that behind closed doors in Hollywood, it was decided that nobody wanted to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to produce a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, featuring an all-black cast. Ticket sales could not support the film’s budget.
Take a close look at the next Apple commercial on television. How many black mothers are shown sitting with their daughters in front of that silvery smooth Apple device? Zero. This isn’t racism; it’s recognizing demographic realities. Just because someone responds to them does not make them racist.
Worse yet, we’re cheapening the meaning and impact of true racism that harms society while ignoring real problems in the black community. We’d be a lot better off hearing solutions to black-on-black crime and the inequity of black incarceration rates than the forfeiture of a person’s property for having the audacity to acknowledge the economic facts of the marketplace.