Popular understandings of identity are changing due to rapidly evolving media technology and an increasingly connected global culture. Individuals need not rely on popular mainstream representations of their groups; instead, they can develop their own unique intersectional identity and connect with others regardless of cultural assumptions based on traditional social categories like race, gender, or sexuality. This increasingly complicated environment is particularly difficult for marketers who for years have relied on targeting consumers based on demographics.
This phenomenon is very evident when considering the Black American community. A part of, but not integrated into, the United States since the inception of the nation, mainstream (read: White) marketers only began to seriously consider Black Americans as a viable market since the Civil Rights Movement. In these 50 years, strategies often relied on assumptions about the Black community to entice consumers, ranging from token visibility (e.g., Black models in print ads, shadowcasting commercials to create one version with White actors and one version with Black actors) to stereotypical portrayals in magazines, movies, and television. For the most part, Black people were represented as “dark skinned white people” (Burrell, 2010) or as extensions of historical caricatures and stereotypes.
However, traditional strategies of targeting the Black Market are less effective in the current media environment. Consumers can now actively seek out or create content that embraces any unique intersection of identity. In this space, we see changing concepts of what it means to be Black; a new generation is taking control of their own imagery and refusing to be subjected to the traditional expectations of Blackness. In this marketplace, the Black Market is simultaneously holding steady, shrinking, and expanding.
According to census metrics, the Black market is holding steady because Black Americans are, and continue to be, approximately 13% of the U.S. population and have not demonstrated significant change over the past 70 years (census.gov), despite significant increases in other ethnic groups like Latino and Asian Americans. In addition, the buying power of Black Americans has also remained stable on multiple metrics: although the raw median income of Black American households has increased, their buying power has technically decreased when controlling for inflation; furthermore, the percentage of Black families making over $100K/year grew steadily until 2000 to approximately 13.6%, but has remained steady since then (12.6% in 2014). By these measures, the Black American Market is stable.
Alternatively, the Black Market is shrinking because more outlets are targeting Black people, thereby reducing the share for each outlet. The broadcast media environment of the 20th century was dominated by a limited number of corporations, and media that targeted Black Americans was often few and far between. In this environment, prominent outlets like Jet and Black Entertainment Television (BET) could effectively guarantee 12-13% of the American population as consumers. However, the strategy of targeting the Black market is no longer novel, nor is it the sole arena of Black-owned businesses given social media. Outlets including The Grio (NBC News), The Root (Univision Communications), and HuffPost Black compete with YouTubers and bloggers for attention of the aforementioned 13%, and more outlets vying for the same slice of the population ensures that each outlet will engage a smaller proportion of the target audience. The end of Jet magazine in 2014 serves as an important case study of this phenomenon of the shrinking Black Market.
Finally, the Black Market is expanding because our definitions of Blackness are expanding. In addition to the traditional understanding of this community as the descendants of African slaves brought to the U.S., the modern Black community includes recent migrants and their descendants, such as President Barak Obama and Oscar winner Lupito Nyongo; this Black community is global and the struggles of Black people internationally are connected to the struggles of Black Americans. Other groups that have been functionally absent from the public representations of Blackness include those who identify as multiracial or queer; in prior understandings of Blackness, both of these groups were often accused of trying to distance themselves from their Blackness, either by identifying with more than one race or by disregarding the religiosity (and masculine expectations for gay men) of the Black community. In the new millennium, evolving definitions of Blackness value this intersectionality, thus expanding the Black Market as well as its social, economic, and political influence.
The nature of the Black Market is both an outcome and a predictor of the current media environment. The technology that allows anyone to explore, define, and share their identity also allows communities to come together around shared issues without relying on media corporations to define them or share their story. Furthermore, in this space, targeting consumers becomes more complicated as broad concepts of the Black audience are no longer sufficient or even applicable. In this paradoxical intersection, “traditional” stories about Blackness can be simultaneously inclusive and exclusive. The current media environment allows us to explore every aspect of our identity through virtual communities that are not affiliated with mainstream or legacy media corporations. One brand or company no longer speaks for an entire demographic; rather, the Black community is speaking for, listening to, and promoting each other.
The current paper features interviews with Black people in Chicago discussing their definitions of Blackness, as well as the future of Blackness. Preliminary findings reveal that Blackness is broad and includes individuals’ lived experience, as well as the community and commonality felt with other Black people. In addition, these shared experiences interacted with their other categorical groups (e.g., gender, nationality, sexuality) resulting in an identity that was simultaneously mutual and unique, individual and collective, and one that is exciting to share and discuss via social media and digital technology. The sociocultural implications of this paradoxical intersection of technology, identity, and marketing will be explored in this paper to understand how Blackness is represented in our current media environment as well as how brands and content creators are tapping into a diverse understanding of Blackness.
To be presented at the Digital Blackness at Rutgers University (April 22, 23); Read more and RSVP at www.rutgersdigitalblackness.com
Burrell, T. (2010). Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority. Smileybooks: New York, NY.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2015). Retrieved December 15, 2015, from http://quickfacts.census.gov.