Louis Carr, BET's president of broadcast media, sounded more exasperated than angry in addressing what he perceives as a dual lack of effort and insight among advertisers. Nonetheless, he took the marketing community to task for lagging well behind the times.
"It's not really surprising, because there aren't that many African-Americans on Madison Avenue--and when you don't see them, you don't think about them," he says. "But just as big a problem is that Madison Avenue has to be more receptive to being educated about African-Americans and seek out more information about the market. Our goal is to make sure that the people who make decisions from a marketing or advertising standpoint truly understand the nuances and differences of the African-American consumer."
The BET-sponsored research, then, is designed to provide the hard data that will help eradicate dated perceptions about African-American consumers-like the one about the "technology gap" that supposedly exists between blacks and other ethnic groups. "A few years ago, you heard so much about how African-American consumers were slower to buy and use technology products than everybody else," Carr explains. "We don't believe that gap exists. We think (African-Americans) are generally among the first to try things like flat-screen TVs and digital cameras, and I think the research will bear this out."
The study is motivated in part by the relative dearth of information about the market and its media-consumption habits. That said, given the available data--the last U.S. Census revealed that the black population is growing at a considerably greater pace than the general population--Carr is surprised that marketers across a broad range of product categories haven't yet adjusted their tactics. "Maybe [marketers] didn't think these consumers could make a difference in their bottom lines. Maybe they haven't hit a ceiling with the other consumers they've been targeting. Who knows, really?"
Carr also cites a disconnect between the strategies used to target African-Americans and those used for other groups. He points to broadcast television as a primary example, expressing borderline disbelief that marketers look almost exclusively to black-oriented sitcoms to reach African-Americans. "Obviously you need more than one type of venue to reach or influence a huge marketplace," he says.
Of course, BET has selfish motives in conducting the research, as the network likely wants to distinguish the market power of its viewers vis-à-vis all black viewers. "This (study) is not about us," Carr emphasizes. "But the people watching those sitcoms are different than the people watching BET. BET was created for and by African-Americans, which means there are different expectations." Previous BET research has shown that its viewers tend to be more educated, have more disposable income, and rank higher in the professional/managerial food chain than viewers of the aforementioned sitcoms.
Carr, a 20-year media veteran, states firmly that he doesn't want to make grand predictions about the outcome of the study. But he admits that he has one major expectation: that black consumers will prove considerably more upscale and cutting-edge than marketers have traditionally considered them to be. "In several categories, whether it's auto or video games or soft drinks or whatever, I think we'll find that the African-American consumer is considerably more sophisticated than what marketers expect," he says. "It won't be a surprise to us, but I think it will surprise a lot of other people."
Multicultural research experts NSightsWorldwide and TNS/NFO World Group will team with BET on the study. Set to be conducted over an 11-week period, the research will tap 2,500 African-American consumers between the ages of 12 and 49. Respondents will be culled from across the country, with a high percentage drawn from urban markets.