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Ads raise consciousness about racial harmony

Published Oct. 8, 2005

Bill Clinton didn't start it. But there are undeniable signs _ as he begins his presidency _ that some of America's biggest marketers are now embracing the same racial harmony themes that Clinton wove into his campaign speeches and stitched into the fabric of his transition team and Cabinet appointments.

At one time, only apparel companies on the marketing edge like Benetton, Esprit and Members Only _ and more recently Nike _ dared to tout race as an issue in ads.

But this week, even Clearasil, the pimple medication made by merchandising giant Procter & Gamble Co., is about to tackle the topic in TV ads to appear on the classroom network Channel One.

Over the weekend, MasterCard co-sponsored a teen summit in New York City that focused on racism. McDonald's ran national TV spots promoting Monday's Martin Luther King holiday.

Timberland Shoes, an East Coast boot maker, is taking on the issue of combating racism while trying to recruit other marketers to join its battle.

And last week, TDI, which sells ad space on buses from Los Angeles to New York City, introduced in Los Angeles a nationwide public service campaign on improved race relations.

All of this comes at a time when racial issues continue to be front and center in the news.

In just a few weeks, the four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King are scheduled to be tried on charges of violating his civil rights. In the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn, antagonism continues between resident blacks and Hasidic Jews. Over the weekend, Jesse Jackson continued his attack on racism in professional sports _ and threatened a baseball boycott. And in Germany, anti-racist groups have taken to the street in protest of attacks by right-wing skinheads on ethnic minorities.

Can advertising quell any of this anger? Probably not. But the public relations around it can attract wide attention. By bringing the issue of race to the forefront, many marketers hope that they can attract newfound attention.

The recent spurt of ads in support of racial harmony represents "a growing recognition of minorities _ and of the increasing power they have in this country," said Roberta Clarke, professor of marketing at Boston University.

"Sure, you can be cynical and say that marketers are only doing this to make money," said Clarke. "But if we can get companies to even act as if they respect these ideals, that may be the most we can expect from them. One thing is for sure: Marketers can't sweep minorities under the rug anymore."

Earlier this month, the chairman of Mercedes-Benz in Germany wrote an "open letter" that ran as an ad, harshly criticizing racial intolerance.

Racial harmony will be the advertising cause for 1993, particularly for companies trying to tap into the teen market, said Marian Salzman, president of the New York research firm, BKG Youth Inc. "The only environmental issues that sell will be urban environmental issues," she said.

A recent survey of teens conducted by BKG for Eastman Kodak Co. found that more than one-third of those responding said that they had been victims of racial discrimination. Only 15 percent of the teens surveyed said they would "never" date a person of another race. For big marketers, this clearly signals that racial harmony sells.

But some corporate image experts say that racial harmony is a marketing fad _ and only companies like Benetton are expected to remain committed to it after other social issues become vogue.

"There's quite a difference between developing a whole corporate culture on the issue _ and, say, Clearasil running an ad about racial harmony," said Joel Portugal, co-founder of the New York corporate identity company Anspach Grossman Portugal.

Indeed, executives at Procter & Gamble concede they became interested in the topic of racial harmony only after it became clear from in-house surveys how important the issue is to teens.

"If it's important to teens, then it's important to Clearasil," said Jim Schwartz, a P&G spokesman.

Beginning this week, actor Demi Moore will be featured in a Clearasil-sponsored public service spot against racism that will initially air on Channel One, but that could eventually land on network television. And Noxzema skin cream is also expected to eventually speak to the issue.

Two weeks ago, Timberland Co. of Hampton, N.H., began running a print ad campaign with a large headline asking consumers to "Give Racism the Boot." It is running in the United States, England, France, Switzerland and Germany _ where Timberland does a lot of its business.

Jeffery Swartz, chief operating officer of Timberland, said that he was struck with the idea for the campaign shortly after hearing a story from one of Timberland's senior executives in Germany. The executive, who is black, told Swartz that his 6-year-old son came home from school and asked his father, "Why are the kids calling me n-----?"

Swartz said Timberland "wanted to be on record" with its strong opposition to racism. The ad is the first of five print ads that will appear over the next year. One ad will show a boot under this headline: "This boot performs best when marching against hatred."

"This is not about selling boots," Swartz said. "It's about making a strong statement."

TDI, the country's largest transit ad firm, is donating $2.5-million in ad space for racial harmony messages that will run across bus sides nationwide, including Los Angeles.

The bus ads feature photos of people from various racial backgrounds with the slogan: "We live in paradise. Don't destroy."

"It's not going to stop a gang member or a graffiti artist from doing whatever they want to do," said Bill Apfelbaum, president and chief executive of TDI, "but it can certainly raise the consciousness of some people."