Measure of a Market

Vodka adGay men are obsessed with large penises. Mexicans would really like their half of the country back. And now that we have your attention, please buy our vodka.

Absolut vodka's edgy new advertising campaign takes niche multicultural marketing to extremes. In an ad targeting the gay market, a ruler with nothing but 8-inch notches represents the Absolut (read: perfect) world. An ad that ran south of the border features a map of North America prior to the Mexican-American War of 1848; Mexico's border extends as far north as Oregon and engulfs Texas.

The blogosphere reacted quickly. For once, gays and conservatives found themselves on the same page: Conservative bloggers called the ad's sexual undertones "deviant," while some LGBR bloggers, including one at Daily Kos, rejected the insinuation that gay men are obsessed with sex, a long-running stereotype. (As an added jab to the gay community, Absolut's accompanying press release trumpeted the ad as "a humorous look at gay men and their fascination with perfect, 8-inch 'member' measurements." Despite the use of that classic us-versus-them term "their," spokesman Jeffrey Moran claims in the same press release, "We're not gay-washing here.") The Mexican ad offended those who weren't even intended to see it. Uber-patriotic Americans, fueled by coverage on the Drudge Report and from Lou Dobbs on CNN, and sensitive to border issues for one reason or another, caused such a ruckus that Absolut pulled the ad and issued a formal apology.

Despite the possibility of controversy, the case for multicultural niche marketing is an easy one. Popular estimates measure multicultural consumer spending at upward of $2 trillion annually in the United States alone, and according to industry studies, brand loyalty is often stronger within ethnic groups.

But the Absolut campaigns represent the two polar-opposite problems that can occur: focusing so strongly on the niche that it becomes stereotype, or focusing so strongly that it alienates the mainstream. When the niche in question is a minority group, complications - along the always touchy lines of race and political correctness - arise. "We have to really pay attention to the nuances and recognize that there's no such thing as one-size-fits-all marketing," says Latraviette D. Smith, national vice president of Edelman Multicultural. "I think a lot of times marketers look at multicultural communities as being monolithic. And none of us are."

Edelman Multicultural, a full-service practice that specializes in African-American and Hispanic marketing, has won several industry awards for their niche campaigns, and Smith stresses that authenticity in targeted campaigns is key. "There's such a diverse culture within the culture that none of our programs would ever be successful if we based them on stereotype," Smith says. "We look to tie into what we call cultural values. Whether it's family, education, spirituality, self-worth, expression ... there are basic cultural values and ideas that we all hold."

In theory, these cultural values, even tailored to a niche audience, will still share a common thread that the majority of consumers can identify with (unless, of course, you consider Absolut's other gay niche ad - of one half of a gay couple proposing marriage). At the end of the day, knowing how far to push it becomes the difference between a successful campaign and your vice president of corporate communications having to insist, "In no way was the ad meant to offend or disparage, or advocate an altering of borders."
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