April 13, 2010

Race-ism on MadAve? Let Them Drink Absinthe!


Oscar Wilde - After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.

Epitomized by its "Green Fairy" imagery, once upon a time Absinthe was consumed on a massive scale. It was a truly hypnotic elixir. For those unfamiliar with Absinthe, it was the most popular beverage in France going as far back to the age of Marie Antoinette. The "Wolfgang Puck" of her day, we remember Ms. Antoinette for her most infamous dinner suggestion of all time, "Let them eat cake".

It seems Marie is still at the table and has cloned herself at the top of the MadAve food chain, only this time at 17 or more of the city's agencies, including BBDO, Saatchi & Saatchi and Ogilvy & Mather. Ad Age suggests that "industry stars" such as Andrew Robertson, Kevin Roberts and Shelly Lazarus will be subpoenaed.

It should therefore come as no surprise then that some on Madison Avenue this week were quoted with the same sensitivity Ms. Antoinette had, in response to the "news" of the racial bias the government is about to investigate at our most "respected" ad agency clearing houses.


Absinthe label (above): "Let me be mad ...mad with madness of Absinthe, the wildest most luxurious madness in the world".

In 1912, the US government officially labeled Absinthe as "one of the worst enemies of man" and issued a ban that remains in force to this day. However, the beverage only had a very small share of the market in Coke's domain, as compared to its share in France.

In March 13th issue of The New Yorker, an article was published titled, "Green Gold, The new Absinthe craze". Back in its heyday, Absinthe made Paris and the rest of France the "wildest most luxurious madness in the world".

Originally discovered and produced in France, it was outlawed at the beginning of the First World War by the "French Chamber of Deputies [who] voted to rid the country of the debilitating effects of endemic absinthism".


One has to wonder if New York City's Commission on Human Rights can rid structural discrimination from the hearts and minds of Madison Avenue as successfully as the French Chamber of Deputies was across the sea?

The Commission has been investigating this problem for well over 18 months with little measurable success; so what makes anyone think that some bureaucratic circus will change the behavior of the street?


It's unlikely that the Commission alone will have much influence in changing "Mad" Avenue. No, that job will be accomplished much more effectively from a little further downtown, on Wall Street.

If institutional investors can be pressured to apply economic sanctions to break the back of apartheid in South Africa, there is a tiny bit of hope that agencies servicing McDonald's, General Motors, Anheuser-Busch, Visa, Marlboro, The Gap, Nike and hundreds of other brands will begin to take a more affirmative and active approach as well.


This news also raises the question of what responsibility trade journals play, in either permeating or activating its category to take self-serving and/or preserving industry action?

Ad Age should be both commended and chastised for putting this week's news about discrimination on its front page:
a. commended for publishing the news itself, (though some in the business think that this action was nothing more than "ripping and reading" right off the AP newswire).
b. chastised for allowing this problem to go unheeded and ignored for so long. Or should they?



You decide, here's some food for thought: on Thursday, March 9th we received AdAge.com's PERSONAL EMAIL ALERT invitation at 1:27PM. When we took a breath and clicked on the poll to vote later that day, at 8:43PM, we were surprised to be informed that the poll had closed.

Most voting booths, even in the South open earlier and close later than AdAge's poll. It's a minor point, yet it makes one wonder if AdAge is just as guilty for ignoring this problem for as long as its constituency has. What is AdAge's own definition for "covering" the industry? AdAge should be investigated just like the largest shops in town. Maybe Mad Ave's Marketer, our own ck will poll you about it next week. If she does, you can be assured the polls will be open more than a few hours.



With beautiful Beyonce' on the cover, Vanity Fair recently paid tribute to the impact HipHop culture has made. The editors took a uniquely creative and outstanding approach to illuminate HipHop's culture's achievement. They asked all major HipHop stars to dress up and be photographed in what is normally seen as old-money WASP, white shoe, blue blood clothes, Westport-like locations and attitudes. It was incredible and a truly moving example of how pictures are worth more than a million words or a well-intentioned Million Man March.

One of the most quoted statistics among marketers aiming their brands at Millennials these days is that 70% of all HIPHOP music and fashion wear is purchased and popularized by white suburban teens. Madison Avenue knows the power and importance of diversity markets. Just check out all the diversity TV ads that ran recently in the SuperBowl, the Olympics and the Academy Awards.


Everything that can be defined as modern entertainment content, including sports stars, TV journalists, talk show hosts, Hollywood stars, music artists, reality TV celebrities and fashion models on the covers of magazines scream that African Americans and Hispanics' time has finally come. They have their freedom. HipHop is their first cultural mass freedom expression. It rings, "I'm free, I'm me, and I'm not you".

The original HIPHOP culture reflects about 15-20% of country yet today it influences 90% of the population. It's now a state of mind. It's real & authentic. No one is making any apologies for it.


So why has the street been eating cake and drinking Absinthe all this time ignoring this important issue? Because Madison Avenue has become incredibly patronage-driven as a result of its consolidation.

A classic example of just how out-of-touch both the industry and its primary trade pub is the two quotes AdAge used in their poll to suggest opposing sides to what they now refer to as "the problem". BTW: It's nice that government action spurred AdAge to begin identifying it as such, yet when was the last time they wrote even 100 words behind it? Where have they and all the other Mad Ave PR-rags been for the last 10 years?

One voter wrote, "If white women are still struggling to break through the glass ceiling -- especially in creative departments -- I can only imagine how it feels to be a racial minority in this white, alpha-male-driven industry."

A second countered, "Advertising is very special because people are hired "on their talent", not race, not gender, and not looks... Besides, should minority agencies be forced to hire more white people?"

Er... yeah, right. Well, we guess the reason then that there are so few blacks and hispanics on Madison Avenue is because they have no talent.

That is precisely the point. This business is so racist it doesn't even realize when it makes pejorative racist slurs, or when its trade journals publish remarks like this as if they are legitimate points of view. Minority agencies may reflect as much as 5% of the business written on the entire street, yet AdAge's belief and interpretation that the comment above is an intelligent and "equal" counter-comment is nothing short of pathetic.

It will be interesting to see what Madison Avenue's demographic makeup will look like 12 months from now, as well as who is running each shop at the top. We will see if this proclamation is truly emancipating.

Madison Avenue knows how to "talk the talk", the question now is do they know how to "walk the walk"?

It will be interesting to see if Madison Avenue can now abstain from its Antoinette-istic attitude through a little self-help and take heed from Mr. Wilde's prophetic quote?

Or will it require a French Chamber of Deputies-like effort to pressure Wall Street's institutional investors to pull their cash out of "Mad" Ave stock and run like heck for cover?

Is the street strong enough or even smart enough to rid itself of the "debilitating effects of endemic discrimination"? We can't help but wonder.


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