P&G Isn't Afraid to Say Black Lives Matter

(Bloomberg View) -- Last November, Johnnie Walker seemed to make an ill-timed bet. The whiskey brand launched an ad on the theme of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." It included standard Americana, including cowboys on horseback.

There was also a prevalence of Hispanic faces. Guthrie's lyrics were spoken by a narrator in accented English that eventually merged into fluent Spanish. Brown faces and Spanish speakers, their daily work completed, were invited to kick back with a scotch and dream American dreams. "This land was made for you and me," the narrator assured them.

Donald Trump, that paragon and parody of white-bro culture, was not expected to become president of this emergent America. Yet November happened. Now, the Johnnie Walker ad's dim lighting seems less a conduit for shared intimacy, more a darker shade of uncertainty.

So it was interesting to see the Procter & Gamble Co., the world's largest consumer-goods manufacturer, home to familiar all-American brands such as Tide, Mr. Clean and Old Spice, wade last month into what looked to be fraught waters.

The corporation launched a web video featuring black parents and children having "the talk." In P&G's conception, "the talk" isn't just about black kids avoiding police brutality; it's about dealing with racial bias as an inescapable, constantly evolving fact of American life.

In an email, Crystal Harrell, a P&G senior manager for communications, wrote:

“The Talk” highlights the impact of racial bias from the viewpoint of African American mothers across several decades. It depicts the inevitable conversations many black parents have had with their children to prepare them for challenges they may face in the world, and importantly to encourage them to achieve despite these obstacles. It shows that while society and times change, bias still exists.

Showing consumers that you understand them is basic marketing. "I think its existence tells us a great deal about what’s on the minds of black consumers (rising tides of racism and vulnerability in public)," emailed Lizabeth Cohen, author of "A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America."

But that understanding exists in a political context shaped by a president who doesn't share it. Trump ignores racial bias -- unless it's perceived against whites. Many of his supporters dispute that bias against blacks is a genuine problem at all: Republicans tell pollsters they believe that whites face more racial discrimination than blacks do.

P&G's video message may be subtle, discreet and narrow-casted to a black audience. But it still confronts such views head on.

"P&G is obviously targeting African-American consumers and their growing spending power, but they’re also crowning themselves with a halo -- you can feel good about the Charmin or Tide, because P&G is not just some distant, staid, white-bread conglomerate. It cares," said Leslie Savan, author of "The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV and American Culture," in an email. "And maybe a bit of that is real. With a spot so overtly political, P&G does risk alienating a swath of angry white people who are sick and tired of being called racists."

I asked Harrell about the political implications of the videos. A corporate spokeswoman for brands that cross every geographic, class and racial line, Harrell was understandably cautious in her response. But she wasn't mealy-mouthed.

P&G and P&G brands are apolitical. We don’t have a point of view on politics, but we do have a point of view that advocates for all our consumers. We know that bias exists in our society -- across age, sex, gender, race and many other dimensions of difference. And we know that acknowledging this fact may make some people uncomfortable. Our approach, with "The Talk," and with other campaigns, has been to spark that dialogue in an inspirational and empowering way -- not in a way that places blame.

Of course, if someone is a victim of racial bias, someone else must be a perpetrator.  Trump's electoral success suggested a new birth of prejudice across the land, at least for a while.

How powerful institutions respond to that invitation matters. It's hard to conceive of a more mainstream, ubiquitous, middle-of-the-road American company than the Ohio-based Procter & Gamble, which also enjoys a stellar reputation for marketing savvy. So the messages it sends, and the reputational investments it makes, seem significant.

"Here's the bottom line," wrote Harrell. "At P&G, we aspire to create a better world for everyone -- a world free from bias, with equal representation, equal voices and equal opportunity. Our hope is that people see our messages in this light."


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

To contact the author of this story: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.

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