Targeting Markets by Race: Authenticity and Transparency

A couple of months ago, Tim Peterson wrote about the problem of marketing to specific races — not just recruiting, but also making sure messages are not boiled down to the point of stereotyping. This feeds into the question of exploitation, including using cultural holidays and symbols to sell to a specific market.

This issue touches on a larger question — a question that involves ethnographers, sociologists, and market researchers alike. How do we, as researchers, work outside of our subjectivity?

Google “ethnography + subjectivity” or “ethnography + authenticity” and dozens of academic studies show up. How do we study cultures other than our own without “Othering” them?*

According to Peterson, “be transparent about it.” In other words, it’s ok to say “we’d like to increase our brand’s presence among Hispanics.” That’s what targeting by demographic and segment is all about, after all. Tip-toeing around race makes it even more of an issue, whereas being upfront and acknowledging a person’s subjectivity lends a moderator credibility. I’d much rather know a company needed to know my opinion because they were interested in increasing visibility among white women in their 20s than have them sneakily tie in questions about the early 90s and how into Titanic I was in 1999. Right?

Additionally (and I’ve been campaigning for this since college [and by “campaigning” I mean “talking about how problematic it is to my coworkers”]), Peterson makes a great critique of the boxed identity problem. He writes:

“Use any consumer interaction with your brand to ask for demographic information but don’t use a drop-down that limits responses to “white,” “black,” Asian,” “Hispanic,” etc. Instead you should let the consumers fill in their own identities, be it Hispanic or Latino or South American or Ecuadorean or Californian. This will give you an idea of how consumers want you to perceive them, and with the right opt-ins, could give you peeks into the behavioral differences among Hispanics and Latinos and South Americans and Ecuadoreans and Californians as they relate to your brand.”

Bingo! Let people define their own subjectivities.** Ask people open-ended questions and dig deeper about where their interests come from. The question of race and ethnicity does not have to be touchy — we’re often just too scared to get it wrong to really focus on doing research right.

*For further reading on the concept of Othering, check out Edward Said’s Orientalism (a synopsis here) and bell hooks’ essay “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance”

**For more on drop down menus and critical cultural analysis, please check out Lisa Nakamura’s “Menu-driven identities: making race happen online” in Cybertypes: Race, ethnicity, and identity on the Internet (2002). It’s a great read.