Jim Crow Is Alive And Well In The Advertising Industry
In a completely unsurprising turn of events, Campell Ewald, a general market (read WHITE) advertising company that claims on their website to be “emotionally charged, culturally relevant, right time, right place ideas” has recently been outed for their 1950s level racist shenanigans.
Meet Jim Houck, appointed Executive Creative Director to the agency’s San Antonio office back in April of 2015. At some point last year, I imagine that his neurons completely misfired, for he promptly sent an invite to his team about celebrating—wait for it—“Ghetto Day”.
OH OKAY? To recap: yes, that is a picture of two smiling Black men minding their own business and yes, that is an invitation to celebrate “Ghetto Day” in the SA (presumably San Antonio since that’s where this particular office is located). Also, please take notice of the butchered AAVE/hip hop slang word salad he vomited all over the screen–what the hell is a “Big D homebitch cycling in to pop a freak”?
This is real life, my cerebral gangsters, word to your mother and don’t forget that vanilla ice-ice baby for your malt 45, which reminds me—
This is a Colt 45:
This is a Malt 40:
Get your ghetto facts straight, Mr. Emotionally-Charged-And-Culturally-Relevant Creative Director!
I wondered (read: hoped that for once in my black ass life) that maybe I somehow misunderstood this “Ghetto Day”. Maybe it was some sort local holiday? Code for an account the agency had?
I took to Google, typing in “Ghetto Day”, and the server promptly delivered me two very different songs that bared the name, “Ghetto Day”. The first song was written by Kane & Abel, their lyrics focusing on gun violence. Another life lost to a bullet was another “ghetto day” for them. On the other hand, Crystal Waters (I did not see that coming) described a “ghetto day” as bright, sunny, hot, tra-la-la, uncle’s barbeque and someone’s making Koolaid in the sink.
Despite their contrasting tones, both songs managed to create a prism-like view of a ghetto day—ultimately a culture that may suffer from systematic oppression and gun violence, but still communal and unrelenting for the love of life and family. Something that any advertising employee claiming to be culturally relevant could have found out if they’d bothered to research or to, perhaps, talk to someone who hails from a so-called “ghetto” neighborhood. But it’s pretty clear that diversity hiring isn’t high on Ewald’s list, or I would believe that somewhere in the reply chain, this would have appeared:
Now that they’ve been caught in their nonchalant behavior toward racial insensitivity, Campell Ewald has maintained a “this happened soooo loooong agooooo” disposition, citing that the employee was fired months ago (for racism or for being bad at his job? What’s the difference?). CEO Jim Palmer recently issued this rather unconvincing statement:
“This email is in no way reflective of who we are as an agency and what we stand for. We addressed this matter very seriously when it happened back in October. To those that were hurt and offended by this language, we sincerely apologize.”
Too little too late. Palmer soon found his own head on the chopping block, promptly terminated by IPG, the holding company responsible for Ewald Campbell–most likely a knee-jerk response to Ewald losing their account with the USAA insurance agency, who released a statement saying that they were in search for a new agency aligning with their “culture and core values.”
Let’s not get out the champagne too early, as Campbell Ewald is only a symptom of the longstanding racist and misogynistic (another article for another time) structure of advertising that is not going anywhere anytime soon. For example, while how much Palmer knew about “Ghetto Day” is still under speculation, he will most likely have a job elsewhere soon. Jim Houck, who sent the email, may have been fired months ago, but he has since gone on in his career to write a novel about a man working at an advertising agency in New Orleans, which ironically enough, is a predominately black city.
Although Campbell Ewald has appeared to suffer an account loss, IPG apparently plans to spin off the USAA team into an actual standalone agency in order to retain the account, thus maintaining the predominately white male status quo without having to make any structural changes to rectify a culture that believes it is acceptable to throw present-day minstrel parties in office.
Mass-market agencies are not only predominately white, male, but are also least likely to make diverse hires unless prompted otherwise. These companies tend to carry the most lucrative accounts while “target-market” agencies are much more likely to hire diversely and yet are often paid much less than general market agencies–despite certain target markets being voracious consumers. These agencies are allowed to get away with their Jim Crow ways by simultaneously operating under an old tired excuse that there simply aren’t any people of color interested in advertising, though target-market agencies already prove otherwise. Not to mention that there has been a recent surge in Latino hiring, most likely to account for the USA’s growing population.
In all, Houck’s “Ghetto Day” email paints us a frightening story, that any qualified Black candidate looking for a job at a mass market agency will have to contend with gatekeepers who associate their identity with liquor, prostitution, and drugs. Gatekeepers who not only associate their identity with dark lurking corners in scary parts of cities, but also finds it somewhere between comedic, fantastical and existing solely to placate the white imagination.
As a result, advertising follows a Jim Crow-esque motto. People of color are either blocked from entering mass market agencies or find the environment toxic and thus sort themselves into finding at “target-market” agencies or the “urban division” of a mass market agency, ultimately being paid less for doing the same amount of work.
With all this in mind, the firings of Campbell and Houck are quite unproductive and, even, insulting. But hey, privilege.