Last time I looked around, much less checked U.S. Census Bureau data, I found that non-Caucasians account for more than a third of our nation’s population. Moreover, to the best of my knowledge, they all grow teeth.
But since that was just one direct mail piece, I decided upon an exercise. I piled all of the past few days’ worth of direct mail, most of it from national advertisers, on the desk. Then I counted the photos and illustrations with people in them. In the final tally, 89 percent showed white people only, six percent showed non-whites only, and five percent showed both.
Further indulging my gluttony for punishment, I grabbed two mass-circulation magazines and counted anew. In one, a news magazine, 71 percent of ad photos with people in them showed whites, seven percent showed non-whites, and 22 percent showed both. The other, a general interest magazine, was less encouraging. In every ad with a photo of people, the people were white. Period.
The exercise was admittedly non-scientific, but the results are suggestive—and disconcerting. Purely from a marketing standpoint, an advertiser who depicts customers of just one race risks losing sales, since those who are excluded may fail to identify with the ads, or even take offense. But from a human standpoint, the concern runs deeper. The human ability to spot small differences proves useful for helping children keep family members straight from strangers. But the same ability proves harmful when societies needlessly separate into “us” and “them.”
Needlessly is no exaggeration. Decades after the hippies sang about filling the world with love, buying it a soft drink and treating one another as brothers and sisters, science has borne out the “brothers and sisters” part. Evidence from mitochondrial DNA shows that any two people from any two points on the globe share not just ancestors, but lots of them. In fact, there are more genetic differences between members of the same race than between races themselves.
So, to be mercenary about it, advertising that is more inclusive will appeal to more people. But to be human about it, advertisers have a great opportunity to reinforce the fact that humankind really is one vast family. Let’s not waste the opportunity.
I doubt that the dentist intended any slight. Everyone could do with the occasional reminder. I hope this one serves.