Is Black-and-White TV a Thing of the Past?


Would you fork over your hard-earned money to a company that didn't value you or your community? Would you want a product in your home if you knew the manufacturer never intended for someone like you to buy it?

Efforts of black media organizations pressing for mainstream advertisers to recognize the spending power of blacks and other minorities by advertising with minority-owned media are starting to pay off.

"The situation has definitely improved," said Kofi Ofori, the former Director of Research for the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy. "I've talked to quite a few station owners who say they feel that they are getting more business from advertisers who are willing to try urban stations. The discrimination is more covert than overt. They know the federal government is scrutinizing the situation."

Ofori is the author of a report entitled, "When Being Number One is Not Enough: The Impact of Advertising Practices on Minority-Owned & Minority-Formatted Broadcast Stations." His investigation showed that 91 percent of the 3,745 radio stations surveyed had experienced discriminatory advertising policies.

The report introduces terms such as, "No Urban/Spanish dictates" and "minority discounts" which advertising agencies use as justification when they ignore or minimize the importance of minority broadcast outlets in their ad campaigns.

Ofori said the study preceded by several months the now-infamous "Katz memo," a leaked internal document of the Katz Radio Group which shed light on why some companies consistently resist placing ads with black media, or in this case, black radio stations.

"When it comes to delivering prospects not suspects, the urban stations deliver the largest amount of listeners who turn out to be the least likely to purchase. Very young and very, very poor qualitative profile," the memo said.

Ofori's report directly followed complaints from the National Association of Black-Owned Broadcasters which resulted in an FCC hearing.

Now, both the The FCC and the American Advertising Federation are helping national advertisers, ad agencies and media companies review their policies and customer perceptions. In a 1999 statement written by FCC Chairman, William Kennard, the FCC acknowledged the need of Madison Avenue to change its attitude about black consumers.

"There is not only a diversity of people in America, but a diversity of types of people within each group-rich and poor, educated and unskilled, blue and white collar," said Kennard.

Ofori adds that the federal government hasn't issued any regulations against advertisers who practice "No Urban/Spanish dictates," but is waiting to see if there is improvement in the system without further intervention.

Ron Campbell, strategic planning director for the Chisholm-Mingo Group, thinks the marketplace is starting to become less tolerant of racism in the process of deciding where to advertise a given product.

And, he said, when racism is the reason for a decision, it is "not necessarily a malicious racism." What's needed, he said, is to convince the white-oriented advertising agencies of how profitable advertising in the black community can be. "After all," he said, "the clients don't tell advertising agencies where to advertise. They approve of where we recommend."

Still, top African-American media, despite high audience ratings for broadcast outlets and large subscription lists for magazines, struggle to convince advertisers that the black community is worth their money. Those who work in sales, research and advertising at these media companies say they must work twice as hard to convince potential advertisers that products will sell well in these markets.

Three years ago, WQHT-Hot 97 was the No. 1 urban, hip-hop radio station with listeners in New York City. Even so, it only earned $27.6 million dollars in ad revenue compared to second-best WLTW-FM, a light, contemporary station, which had earnings 37 percent higher.

Debra Epstein is in charge of sales and research at both KISS-FM and Hot 97. She agrees that many advertisers and their ad agencies put their prejudices before good business sense.

"I spend a lot of my time proving that the community spends money," said Epstein. "The hardest is trying to sell spots for Internet users and proving that black people do use computers. I use the Internet at work all day and not at home, but I'm not black. What makes them think that I would buy service over a black person?"

Dereck Caldwell, advertising director for Black Enterprise magazine, added, "We have no problem getting liquor or cigarette ads while we are fighting to get ads dealing with financial services and technology."

Caldwell is all too familiar with the lack of advertising dollars coming into black magazines. Even at Black Enterprise, with its affluent, upper class, African-American readership, the advertising department struggles for revenue, he said, adding, "Black consumer spending is large. Advertising agencies have to make the argument to their clients that black media can be competitive."

Ad agencies are proficient at target marketing, said Lynette Johnson, a media buyer for McCann-Erickson. Black publishers blame modest advertising revenue for the high cover prices they say they have to charge just to stay afloat. They believe media planners are oblivious to the spending power and diverse readership of black magazines. According to Caldwell, another contributing factor to the paucity of advertising dollars spent with black outlets is the white-orientation of both syndicated research, such as the Nielson ratings, and of the advertising industry in general.

Although Black Enterprise has had its problems attracting large corporate advertisers, it still lists Merrill Lynch, BMW, Delta Airlines, Marriott Hotels, and Motorola among those that have placed ads in the magazine. But, Black Enterprise is vying for one company in particular that has yet to advertise in any black media - the almighty Microsoft.

"They feel if they do a mass advertising, all people, black and white, will be encompassed in that and they don't need to target to specific communities," said Caldwell.

Last year, a University of Georgia survey showed that African-Americans accounted for $533 billion in consumer spending and that the highest black buying power is in New York City, an estimated at $60.9 billion a year. Yet, several myths about the black consumer continue to get in the way: that African Americans have the same purchasing standards as whites; that general advertising is enough to attract black consumers, and that there are enough black advertising agencies around that will support black media.

But Caldwell said, "The problem with black advertising agencies is that they don't get the same money to work with to do a campaign as the other advertising agencies."

Black Entertainment Television (BET) is the only nationwide African-American network. Just by watching, it's apparent that the network's advertising depends heavily on infomercials, promoting everything from exercise machines to psychics as well as ads for fast food, health care services and hair products specifically marketed to black people.

But where are the Internet service providers? The luxury car and dot-com commercials? The exclusive department stores such as Nordstrom, Stern's and Macy's? Johnson of McCann-Erickson says, "Advertisers like Estee Lauder and Liz Claiborne specifically ask for non-ethnic programming to sell their products, unless it's Oprah or Cosby. They don't realize the amount of potential customers they lose because they don't advertise among black shows or on BET."

After the Katz memo became public, the Rev. Al Sharpton created the Madison Avenue Initiative, a program of the National Action Network, to promote the use of minority media and advertising agencies. More than 300 radio stations, magazines, and newspapers have joined the Initiative to review advertising policies.

Part of Sharpton's job, according to a statement issued by the organization, involves, "meeting with CEOs and top decision makers of several of the nation's leading consumer product companies, who, based on minority consumption figures do not spend adequate dollars on minority media."

The Initiative as well as advertising agencies like Don Coleman Advertising and the Chisholm-Mingo Group hope to prove the positive aspects of advertising in black media. Money is money, Caldwell said, no matter who is buying a product.