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Affinity Marketing Update - Or, Viewer Beware

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

“Ethnic affinity” marketing, (does it sound like ethnic 'cleansing' might have sounded all those years ago?) which, loosely defined by me, is when you design the marketing campaign or content to target the ethnic group you wish to reach, and you adjust the message to appeal to the culture/beliefs/desires of the group to which you are pitching.

If you were on Facebook back in 2015, you may have seen a trailer for the film “Straight Outta Compton.” If you are white, you would have seen a trailer in which

policemen with guns hold Black men facedown on the pavement — stereotypical, racially charged images. But if you are Black, you would have seen a trailer containing different images: members of the hip-hop group N.W.A. driving through the streets of Compton. In other words, the version of the trailer shown was determined based on the viewer’s race, which was tracked and sold to advertisers by Facebook. The last part of the film trailer was the same for everyone, regardless of race. This was the first time that Facebook used ethnic affinity marketing. It worked. The film was a success among both Blacks and whites.

The name makes it sound normal, although it is anything but. Today's version of ethnic affinity marketing potentially adds or subtracts something that diminishes, or fiddles with, the reality of what is being suggested or presented. It's got danger written all over it because it actually can present the same exact thing in two very very different lights.

Facebook claims it is no longer employing ethnic affinity marketing. I would venture to say that it is likely they are, but perhaps using a different methodology, one that is less obvious. The bottom line is that they know how to help their advertisers win the persuasion war by manipulating presentations to mirror the inside knowledge they have about how an potential customer thinks and behaviors.

Here’s the thing: salespeople have always made sales based on their perception of what may motivate potential customers. If you have three kids and go into a car dealership, the salesperson is not going to talk to you about how many seconds it takes to get to 65 miles per hour. He or she is going to speak about safety and interior accoutrements that appeal to your lifestyle.

So, what’s the difference?

The world in which we now live allows for a morally and ethically bankrupt type of consumer manipulation. The consumer is not buying a car so much as she is buying hatred or bias against people different from herself. This further divides us and prevents us from living together in harmony. So that car salesmen didn't present that which wasn't actually true to get you to purchase.

The answer? You must be responsible for the content you consume. You must examine it closely. You must look deeper to make certain what you are seeing is, in fact, reality, rather than what someone wants you to perceive. It's on us, we the people.

Affinity marketing is not new and it's not going away. Awareness of it and how it works is critical in ensuring marketing doesn't become fake news; that marketers use it with an clear ethical standard as to what they are and are not willing to do.

These are dangerous times, and we the people and those of us who are employed as marketers must assume a responsibility greater than that with which we are tasked. We must have a line in the sand that we are not willing to cross, and we must call out those who we see crossing it.

I’ll start with you, Rupert Murdoch. How do you sleep at night? More importantly, how does your family still sit at your dining room table?

Note: Thank you to Roxanne J. Coady for your amazing interview with Jessica Nordell, whose book “The End of Bias” really lays out how marketing teams take advantage of our unconscious biases and in doing so, perpetuate racism in advertising.


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