Are ad men out of touch with black consumers?

Advertisers seem to be running scared of black publications. The magazine Touch is the latest casualty
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Yet another smart publication by and for British blacks has hit the rocks because of insufficient advertising. Touch was a confident music and style magazine that was primarily, though not solely, aimed at knowing, young, urban, super-sleek black Britons. These consumers know who they are; they are trend-setters; they are sensual and hedonistic. Eminem probably wants to be one of them when he grows up.

Yet another smart publication by and for British blacks has hit the rocks because of insufficient advertising. Touch was a confident music and style magazine that was primarily, though not solely, aimed at knowing, young, urban, super-sleek black Britons. These consumers know who they are; they are trend-setters; they are sensual and hedonistic. Eminem probably wants to be one of them when he grows up.

But the advertising industry, which projects itself as so now and cutting-edge, is in truth squeamish and conservative. The colour of money is evidently a disincentive, even in this greediest of sectors. Status is another problem. Touch survived for 10 years, and during its worst months it still had a circulation of 35,000, only 10,000 below that achieved by i-D and Arena.

Yet Touch, as one black fashion designer said to me, "is thought of as just a nigger ghetto, of no importance to the rich and trendy which is such rubbish". Another radical and exciting magazine 2nd Generation folded after an all-too-brief existence. The writing was extraordinary; it was visually stunning and appealed to young people who are naturally cosmopolitan and open.

Jaimie D'Cruz, one of the founders of Touch doesn't simply blame advertisers, some of whom did back the venture. He is an iron realist: "We started off as a fanzine and were under no illusions that big multinationals would rush to support us. Some did, like Levi's, Diesel and Caterpillar. But this is the story of a culture, a music and a lifestyle that is increasingly influential in global pop culture but which is ignored, parodied and misrepresented in the mainstream media."

Some critics point out that the magazine had, in reality, become too conformist and imitative, and that the sharpness and authenticity had disappeared. These other issues and points are obviously important, but by all accounts, there was never that much lucrative advertising coming through either before or after the changes and without this revenue, no well produced publication can hope to survive.

The advertising industry has been caught out before for outdated views of the market. Remember the ignominy faced by Ford when white faces were superimposed on black employees who appeared in a sales brochure. Then there was that infuriating Persil advert that showed a Dalmatian shaking off its black spots. In 1998, Naomi Campbell memorably said: "This business is about selling, and blonde and blue-eyed girls are what sells.'" Out of 2,000 babies used for a Vauxhall Astra advert, only one (at the back) was black.

Yvonne Thompson, managing director of a black advertising and sponsorship company, has said: "It is not considered aspirational to have black people in advertisements. The general market knows nothing about communicating with the black community and often doesn't want to deal with them. It could be a profitable market if they knew how to handle it."

Some of this has changed. More black and Asian celebs are seen in mainstream adverts (Meera Syal, Ian Wright, Frank Bruno) and more ordinary Britons of colour are now believed to wash clothes, use sanitary towels and go to the Halifax. This latter company's use, recently, of a bespectacled, likeable black employee who sang gloriously was a brilliant idea. But these are still so exceptional that they are noticed and remembered. Who is responsible for this frankly idiotic exclusion of individuals who could attract swathes of consumers? A report in the FT in 1996 put the "ethnic minority" spend at £10bn. Sometimes it is the client who does not want black or Asian faces associated with the product. At other times, the ad agencies pre-empt trouble by not including more than a tiny number. And it is this "caution" which then impacts savagely on magazines and newspapers that have set themselves up as niche products catering for black and Asian Britons.

Meet Peter Akinti, the seriously talented and determined editor of Untold, a glossy and frank style magazine for black men. He spends all his time visiting the designers in London and Milan and badgering indifferent ad agencies. He knows many of the top people in the design houses who are very keen on linking up with the fashionable black Britons.

About to print a 300-page fashion special, what infuriates him is that they are not ignorant of the potential: "They use rap artists like LL Cool J and Missy Elliot. Gap has increased sales massively since they started using cool blacks. Armani is using Oluci, the Nigerian model, Ralph Laurens did well with Tyson Beckford, so they know how successful black style leaders are. But they will not place a single ad in my magazine and if some do, they want to pay a pittance, which is what Touch used to get and Pride, the magazine for black women. This then just devalues our worth further. It is so annoying and frustrating. Why should I give them pitifully low rates when they pay the other mags with the same circulation much more money? When I go into Harvey Nicks, do I get a cheaper deal because I am black?"

Black newspaper editors face the same obstacles. They survive on local-authority and equal-opportunity job ads. Mike Best of The Voice says his paper is making some inroads after nearly 20 years, but attracting and keeping the big names is still very difficult.

Michael Eboda the editor of the intelligent New Nation again says that this neglect makes no sense at all commercially. I put it to Eboda that perhaps now-separate black publications feel passé, unnecessary. "How come nobody says this about the Jewish Chronicle? We exist because white national publications continue to ignore us. They are good at appropriating our culture without putting anything back into those who created it."

Both Eboda and Akinti claim that not even companies who have been popularised by black people - Nike and Timberland - bother to put money back into the newspapers and magazines who probably feature their products on real people in every issue. And it is not only circulation figures which keep them away. Many magazines such as Arena get adverts not because they have vastly high circulation figures but because they are seen to have cachet.

Barry Delaney, an ad guru and practitioner, agrees with this. So why then are equally stylish black magazines excluded? "This industry is ruthless. It is not racist, not anti-racist. They see the market in colour-blind terms. They are uneasy about the idea of ghetto marketing. The mainstream magazines are seen as catering for the consumer from all backgrounds."

This is an impasse which is doing nobody any favours. Black and Asian families are bigger, with higher birth rates. They eat more food, buy more clothes. A higher proportion of them than whites are in higher education. They are fashion leaders and phenomenally creative in the music and entertainment business. If equal opportunities mean nothing to those in advertising, perhaps simple good business sense should force them to look at these millions of missed opportunities.

Comments