The ‘R’ Word

Yo, I don’t think we should talk about this
Come on, why not?
People might misunderstand what we’re tryin’ to say, you know?
No, but that’s a part of life

For those that may not recognize these lyrics, they’re the opening verse from Salt-n-Pepa’s Grammy Nominated 1991 single ‘Let’s Talk About Sex.’ No, I’m not going to talk about sex, but I thought it was a fitting introduction for another topic that we as designers and communication professionals deal with on a daily basis… the issue of race. More specifically race and the spokespeople, models, and visuals brands choose when communicating with their target audience.

Much like sex, the discussion of race can be an uncomfortable topic (and hopefully I can broach it without ruffling too many feathers). But let’s face it—on a daily basis everyone in our line of work is thinking about it, talking about it, and scrutinizing visual communications based upon it.

This ad for U by Kotex, entitled ‘So Obnoxious,’ is about a year old. I couldn’t help but recall and share it with you. It felt so relevant to the subject at hand. The ad essentially deconstructs itself, revealing the shallow, yet very real, logic creative professionals are faced with when executing a concept.

How do you use choose a face, or faces, to relate to and resonate with a target audience that consists of multiple age levels, racial backgrounds or even different sexes? Ultimately, no one wants to risk offending or alienating members of their target audience. I feel like the trend is to choose the obvious answer and represent them all. However, doesn’t that also create the issue of being, well, obvious? I always wonder if the target audience is really buying into this approach. Perhaps I have a leg-up because I’m ‘in the biz,’ but I’d like to think the general public is also savvy to this ploy.

However, as creative professionals, we must be sensitive to the issue. What does this mean for our work? In my experience, it usually means a great concept and an arresting visual become watered down. Generally, it means we’re left with the obligatory and obviously staged multi -racial, -age, -sex visuals. Or we are sent in search of a face that is racially ambiguous or, as I’ve often heard it referred to, ‘diverse.’ If you’re searching for a photograph to purchase, it becomes a stock photography nightmare. Personally, I prefer original photography over stock, especially when you are looking for something very specific. However, if you are art-directing a shot, remember you must always be on-point. Be aware of where your subjects are in relation to each other. If you’re paying attention to the harmony of the color of the clothing, the way the subjects are interacting with other elements, the way their hair is laying, or the numerous other intricacies of staging the perfect shot, and the group has unconsciously segregated—your shot is ruined. That’s a rookie lesson I learned the hard way. Believe me, it’s much easier to get the shot right during the photoshoot than attempt to please a client by correcting it in Photoshop later.

I have gone to great lengths to meet client’s requests in the efforts of racial sensitivity (including making a Caucasian man an African-American through the power of Photoshop—not a highlight of my career by any means). But in the end, I’m always left wondering if it’s those behind the scene perpetuating an issue that may not really be an issue with the recipients of brand communication efforts. Does the skin color of the person or people on the cover of a printed piece or in an advertisement elicit a reaction, instinctively or otherwise, that makes the subject—and therefore the communication—more relatable to a target audience? Is the idea that members of the target audience can relate to brand communication on merely a rational, emotional or visceral level naïve? I’d like to think not and that credible communication can transcend race. Perhaps I am the one who is naïve or simply jaded. What do you think?