What’s wrong with ethnic marketing?

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Pradip Rodrigues

Close to 19.1 per cent of Canadians identify as visible minorities and that number is exploding. Naturally then multinational corporations are targeting these groups for marketing purposes, especially banks and other retail services. And while marketing to ethnic market segments is increasingly the norm, the risks of offending racialized groups is a real problem that is happening ever more frequently.

All across the western world some of the best minds in the advertising world are inadvertently releasing ad campaigns and commercials deemed insensitive, racist and insulting to various ethic groups. In Europe billboards promoting white-colored PlayStation Portable ran into serious trouble. It showed a white woman dressed in white grabbing a black woman’s face which depicted assault of a powerful white woman against a black.

Nivea’s Re-Civilize ad campaign showing a well-dressed and clean-shaven African-American male throwing the head of a not-so clean-shaven and afro-donning male also didn’t sit well and caused outrage. There are numerous print and billboard commercials that have gone and will continue to go sideways because ad agencies and the multinational corporations don’t really get it when it comes to truly connecting with ethnic groups. When human beings are reduced to nothing more than numbers and part of a market share, sensitivity often goes out the window.

While some print campaigns should be pulled down when they can be construed as offensive and racist, others should not, in the interest of free speech and creativity. Last week a TD Bank abruptly stopped running online advertisements targeting South Asians over the ‘offensive’ word “desi.” I personally didn’t think there was anything offensive about the online ad campaign, if there was anything wrong, I’d point to its mediocre messaging. If throwing in the word ‘desi’ instead of the more colloquially used South Asian passes for ethnic marketing, well then, so be it.
The person who took offense to the online ad campaign expressed outrage for the wrong reason and TD bank cravenly caved so quickly that it might’ve surprised the offended individual who might have thought he would be deposing before the Ontario Human Rights Commission at some point in his crusade for ‘justice’.

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Perhaps the management should launch its own independent team to assess whether or not the term ‘desi’ was indeed offensive if it hasn’t already done so. By pulling an ad campaign costing a small fortune to conceptualize has unfortunately created a precedent.

The aggrieved South Asian in a media interview revealed that the term ‘desi’ was an offensive term in India. Why? Because it is used to refer to Indians who are backward and rural. I buy a brand of ghee (Clarified butter) with the word Desi in it and I don’t think they set out to offend their customers

Frankly I’ve heard well-educated South Asians from urban backgrounds in Canada and the US refer to themselves and their friends as ‘desi’.

Today the word is used to describe cuisine, culture and people. Example, “Brampton is full of ‘desi’ people.” Is it offensive, true or both?

Over the weekend I asked a couple of ‘desis’ if they were offended by the term. Most shrugged and said it was a word they used and heard often, and it simply was another word for South Asian or East Indian. One person said it depended on context. She rightly pointed out that if it was used to dismiss a bunch of people by condescendingly referring to them as desis, it would be offensive.
TD bank certainly didn’t have that in mind when they set about discussing the ad campaign with their advertising agency. The team that crafted the message was probably a bunch of pseudo-intellectual ‘desis’. The bank genuinely believed using ‘desi’ would be seen as an endearing term that would resonate and connect with the community.

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Today identifying and targeting ethnic groups for marketing purposes is something many companies are doing to some extent, but this whole business is fraught with ethical difficulties. In a multicultural society consisting of a dominant group and many diverse, minority groups defined by ethnicity, a small thing can quickly become a combustible issue that can spiral out of control.
On the other hand, if marketers don’t reach out to ethnic populations, it may risk losing out. So, what often happens is that these companies make clumsy attempts at reaching out and often fall short.

When it comes to targeting South Asians, ad agencies would lazily fall back on the tried and tested use of Hinglish in their ads. It’s mostly English sentences or dialogues with key Hindi words thrown into it for effect or to signal it was targeting ‘desis’.

If someone were to ask me to point out anything remotely offensive or irritating, I’d say using Hinglish to target South Asians would be up there. Why? To an outsider, hearing a commercial or reading an ad with sentences half in English and half in Hindi would suggest that the person speaking Hinglish or the targeted group, South Asians, were not fully comfortable in English, hence they needed to use Hindi words as a back up to truly get the message or point across. Using Hinglish could end up leaving an outsider thinking that these ‘desis’ were in the process of picking up English as a second language and had trouble framing a proper sentence. And yet, there are ‘ad gurus’ who explain to multinational heads that such language would connect with ‘desis’. And they are probably right because Hinglish in Indian ads has now replaced proper English. When was the last time you watched a Bollywood movie with characters not breaking out into English or throwing in English words or sentences in their dialogue?

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I am willing to bet that most second-generation ethnic Canadians and well-educated and urban new immigrants coming to Canada connect with mainstream ads. And even the so-called ‘desis’ with poor understanding of English will buy products and services because of its perceived value rather than because there was a brown model or Hinglish employed by the creators of the ad campaign. In fact, a status-seeking South Asian would likely buy a late model luxury SUV if he or she sees it popular with White people. I know many ‘desis’ who go out of their way to buy homes in mostly white areas. These so-called typical ‘desis’ perceive homes in such areas of greater value than the ones filled with people who look and sound like them. They are also likely to prefer items and services that are popular with mainstream whites rather than with any other ethnic group including themselves.

Visit any depressing looking strip mall in an ethnic neighborhood in the GTA and you will find it filled with late model luxury cars. The people driving such cars haven’t bought these vehicles because there was a sorry looking sari-clad model stepping out of the SUV in the commercial, they were likely taken in by the glamorous Caucasian models and uber cool lifestyle they seek in the western world.

Upwardly mobile South Asians both here and in India are globalists in their thinking and aren’t easily fooled or persuaded to buy products and services simply because the company employed Hinglish or a desi model to reach out to them.

The way multinationals and ad agencies crafting such ad campaigns attempt to connect with ethnic minorities especially South Asians need a new approach. The tactics and approach seem like something out of the 70s and such campaigns could quite possibly appeal to South Asians in their 70s. -CINEWS

Comments: 1

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  1. It is always something that needs to be carefully considered before release. Now how does one expect the client to know these fine nuances when they hire expert agencies to do that due diligence. Was just speaking with a Research house in Edmonton today who speak of the growing demand by clients to address the multicultural communities growing in Canada, and our need to have professional multicultural marketing advisors to ensure the right message goes out. We are in a transition stage in Canada with the need to educate clients of the layers within layers as we have farmers landing as well as corporate level professionals each having their own level of existence. I am glad that this is a conversation today as it implies it’s importance and the need to put proper budgets and time behind it. Truly a sign of progress and of things to come.