I work on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. One of the beautiful things about working in downtown Detroit is that after exhausting the local coney island, and the fast food place or two nearby, you’re probably going to have to drive somewhere else if you didn’t pack a lunch. Driving around Detroit, there’s one feature of the landscape that predominates these days, perhaps more so than even the blight – it’s the Colt 45 billboards (pictured).
Malt liquor and black urban areas have a history going back decades – a cheap, powerful alcoholic drink that advertisers have come to make inextricable from the black community, so much so that it was a frequent trope in recent days that Barack Obama would serve malt liquor at his beer summit. It’s a particularly insidious form of racial targeting that has been more successful than likely even its creators could have hoped; go to any ghetto-themed college party run by white kids and you will find rows of malt liquor bottles, chances are if you ask someone to describe a malt liquor drinker, “black” will be one of the primary descriptors (if they’re being honest).
Detroit City Council members are up in arms about this, which is at least a break from the usual not paying taxes on things. But it’s also wholly indicative of the state of advertising in the black community, which in turn reinforces both outside social expectations of African-Americans and the community’s own internal preferences. One remarkable thing about old Colt 45 ads is the way in which, even though they were obviously about how terrific malt liquor was for black people, they at least had the decency to play on the universal 80s tropes of badasses walking down steam-filled alleys in trenchcoats:
In a way, the success of malt liquor’s infiltration into the black community has to do with the fact that it was one of the first products to openly target black people as a desirable consumer audience; that this was based on an expectation that black people didn’t have money and liked to get drunk is the big racist hammer crashing down. The problem is, as advertisers have sought out black markets and incorporated them into their advertising, they frequently do so in ways that play to the same stereotypes that malt liquor targets.
Black woman getting a weave? Check. Black women have animal hair? Check. Black women are sassy and angry? Check. The most famous bearer of hair extensions today isn’t a sassy black woman, but Britney Spears. Yet somehow, I don’t think that any advertiser in their right mind would ever show a mid-20s blonde white woman getting bleached yak hair extensions (unless she was out with her chortling black friends who were all getting synthetic extensions as they sat around drinking grape Kool-Aid and talking about how fine Blair Underwood was).
Of course, the sassy black woman isn’t just being used to get you to text about your fake hair. She’s also being used to sell you fried chicken:
Fried chicken’s also been a longtime bane of the black community – going around those same areas of Detroit, there are more Church’s and Popeye’s Chicken restaurants than there are Burger Kings and McDonald’s. But again, a smart-mouthed black lady is aggressively telling how much you gon’ love this fried shit! Contrast this to KFC’s multicultural Grilled Chicken ads (featuring stereotypical Asians, for a change):
Grilled chicken, of course, is considered a healthier, smarter, food choice…and there are barely any black people in the commercial. One black girl gets to say a line and then dance, and there are two black female twins who are on the screen so quickly it may actually be subliminal.
Ever wonder why there are high rates of obesity among poor black people? Well, when you’re targeted by food and drink choices that are either fried, alcoholic or sugary, and your immediate food shopping environment is overwhelmingly crafted to serve those “truths”, it’s no surprise. But it is smoooooooooth.