Parsing the Talk about “The Talk”

Procter & Gamble's ad campaign showing black mothers discussing racism with their children has created a buzz.

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Parsing the Talk about “The Talk”

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We’ve seen commercials like this before, sometimes on Super Bowl Sunday.  They come all dressed up to impress. The visuals are dramatic, the messages drip with significance, the images are unforgettable and the music lingers in our minds. They leave us smiling or crying or reflecting. In essence, they are noble and for a cause – to save the environment, to encourage us to join hands and love each other, to promote gender equality. This is the realm in which you will find “The Talk,” Procter & Gamble’s two-minute video that tackles racial bias in a conversation that African-American mothers have with their children.  The video has generated a 60-second commercial that has aired on limited broadcast outlets.

Released this past summer, “The Talk” is the latest component of the company’s 10-year My Black is Beautiful Campaign (MBIB), which was created in 2007 by a group of black women at P&G and is described on its website as an initiative to provoke a thoughtful dialogue about black beauty. MBIB’s mission “is to ignite and support a sustained national conversation by, for and about black women.”  Vignettes in “The Talk”  show African-American mothers talking to their children about bigotry, discrimination and racial threats through the decades from the 1950s to present day.

Overall, it is an excellent commercial with an authentic voice, compelling message and striking visuals, but it takes an easy and conventional route to discussing bias, as it depicts black people talking about how racism is affecting them. Rather they should have taken Robert Frost’s less-travelled road, using a different perspective that would lead in a bold direction. Yet, even in its present form it has generated controversy from two sides: cultural conservatives who see it as reverse racism and advocates for black men who decry their lack of a significant role in the video.

As consumers, we are familiar with Procter & Gamble, P&G as it is often referred to, by its many products, including  Bounty, Tide, Crest, Pampers, and others that focus on personal care and home care.  A global company of more than 100,000 employees with headquarters in Cincinnati, OH, P&G has been consistently listed in Diversity Inc.’s Top 50 companies for diversity.

Who is the target audience or key publics for this video and its commercials?

Kristine Decker, P&G’s North American Median and Brand Operations Director, told the National Newspaper Publishers Association Newswire that the company produced the piece because “it was an opportunity to start a dialogue about bias.” She continued: “We’ve been on a mission to talk about bias in many forms, and we decided as part of our ‘My Black is Beautiful’ campaign to take on the topic of bias from a racial bias perspective.” On its website, P&G states: “Through our brands, we can bring greater awareness to bias that exists in many forms, sparking conversations that motivate change, creating new expectations for people to live up to, and ultimately helping to create more equal opportunities for all. A more equal world is good for us, our consumers and our community.”

The MBIB initiative clearly defers to African American women as parents. And why wouldn’t it? African American women hold more than half of the black community’s adult purchasing power according to Nielsen in a 2014 study. In that same study, Nielsen found that 62 percent of African American women “believe embracing and supporting their culture is important.”

All advertising is self-serving. By definition it is “paid nonpersonal communication from an identified sponsor using mass media to persuade or influence an audience.” Black advertising pioneer Tom Burrell in his book Brainwashed contends that all advertising is propaganda, either positive or negative. This particular video is certainly positive propaganda.

What is there not to like about the commercial itself? It is advertising art. In the video, African American mothers are talking to their children, both girls and boys, about actions or inactions they must take to survive in a racist society that just sees their color.  It is a conversation that spans decades – in the video and in life. In the first frames relative to the 1950s, a mother is doing her daughter’s hair and she says to her daughter that what the woman at the store said to her is not a compliment. It is not until later in the video that we learn what that comment is: “You are pretty for a black girl.” Her mother deflects that accession to inferiority by telling her daughter: “You are not pretty for a black girl. You are beautiful period, okay? Don’t ever forget that.”

Screenshot from “The Talk” ad campaign

In other scenarios of the  video from the 70s, 80s, 90s and this decade, respectively, one mother talks to her son about the N-word; another tells her daughter that she is just as good as white kids at a camp but she will have to work twice as hard and be twice as smart; another mother tells her son at a sporting event that it is unfair that he is being left out because of the color of his skin; while another cautions her son to have his ID as he leaves home for music practice in case he is stopped. Finally, there is the scenario where a mother advises her daughter to be vigilant in her driving.  Acknowingling the “Driving While Black” phenomenon, she tells the teenager: “This is not about you getting a ticket; this is about you not coming home.” The ending tag lines are: “Let’s talk about The Talk. So we can end the need to have it. It’s time for everyone to talk about bias.”

Reviews of “The Talk”

The piece feels real. My parents had the talk with me and my siblings in the 60s and 70s, and I had it with my daughter around 2002 when she was 15. Overall, the video resonates and is very sensitive to culture. Therefore, it was no surprise to learn that a consultant for the project produced by mega agency BBDO was New York-based Egami Consulting Group, which describes itself as an “award winning multicultural integrated communications agency” that  is the ethnic agency of record for the MBIB campaign.

In sharing the video with students from my classes at Morgan State University, I found a consensus that it was a poignant message that many of them had heard in different forms and shapes from parents, grandparents and other relatives or that they had even given to younger siblings.

Comments from junior and senior students in my class who viewed the video included Sierra who said, “It felt genuine.”  Iyanna said, “I loved the message and I felt like it was very home-grown and genuine. I can feel the impact from African Americans who worked on this campaign.” And Jonathan said, “It is a great gesture to create conversation.”

Generally, the video has received a warm and enthusiastic reception from the African American community across a broad spectrum. Representatives of the trade publication Target Market News, the National Association of Black Broadcasters (NABOB) and the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) were invited by P&G to discuss “The Talk” before it was released to the public. “Major corporations have an obligation to participate in improving the overall welfare of our nation. NABOB commends P&G for taking on this important issue, and doing it in such a thoughtful and constructive manner,” said its president, Jim Winston. Comedian and radio talk show host D.L. Hughley commended P&G for making the effort. In a clip from his radio show posted on August 3, he tells complaining conservatives: “You may be uncomfortable by the conversation. We are uncomfortable having it….We are uncomfortable telling out children someone may call them n***** who doesn’t look like them.”

Dr. Raymond Winbush, who writes and speaks about black male development, says that P&G has made a “credible” effort, and he gives P&G “the benefit of the doubt.” Winbush, who is director of Morgan State University’s Institute for Urban Research, said that he would liked to have seen more visibility of black men in the video. In some scenes, he said, “Why couldn’t there have been a mother and father giving the talk? My father gave me the talk.”

On the other hand, Michelle Malkin, writing for the conservative National Review considers the ad “identity-politics pandering.” She contends: “Industry marketers aren’t satisfied with selling useful products people want and need. They’re hell-bent on transforming successful businesses into social-justice busybodies.” But according to Laurie J. Wilson and Joseph D. Ogden, Brigham Young University professors who have written about societal trends affecting communications, today’s public is demanding a “corporate commitment of resources to solve the problems affecting the community… .”

This is where the secondary role of advertising takes the stage.

Advertising’s Secondary Role

Blacks and other minorities have had a tenuous relationship with advertising throughout our history in the United States. Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, an author and educator who has done extensive research on the history of African Americans and advertising, has written about the importance of advertising’s secondary role in society. “Advertising projects images that are handed down from generation to generation,” she says. “These images coupled with others presented through the mass media play a pivotal role in facilitating social change and can be detrimental if not used in a positive manner.”

That is why I agree with my activist friend DeCarla Martin that the ad lacks enough boldness. DeCarla is the kind of informed person who participates in community meetings, attends public affairs lectures, marches in protests and engages in activities to promote progressive change. She describes the commercial as poignant, but thinks it targets the wrong audience. “It successfully provides the standard warm and fuzzy feel good approach to a devastatingly real, trauma inducing dilemma experienced by black people. I appreciated how ‘The Talk’ offered a depiction of this one conversation spanning several decades.  Overall, I’m left with the feeling that this is a timid attempt. Who is the target audience? If it’s black women and/or black families, Procter & Gamble is preaching to the choir.  In other words it’s too little, too late.

“I would offer something more visually inclusive that offers a refreshing, impactful buzz that would reverberate throughout the TV airwaves.  My version would start with multiple pics of beautiful pristine neighborhoods, gated, condos, beachfront, and center city areas, followed by a montage of all types of white couples opening the doors of their home welcoming a new white neighbor into their house to watch a commercial that social media is raving about.

“After watching, the camera would pan across each white household. Clicking the TV off, the host would say “What can be done by us to end ‘The Talk?’”

DeCarla, you have said it so well.





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