Reflecting Audiences in Communication: Why Do We Keep Missing the Mark?

Since I began studying media, marketing and advertising back in 2014, there have been countless examples of communicators not only missing the mark when it comes to marketing to a target audience, but going as far as to disregard the historical, often times offensive context of the messages they are sharing.

For example, in 2018, H&M published an ad featuring a young black child wearing a hoodie with the phrase, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” In 2017, Pepsi aired a commercial featuring model Kendall Jenner. In the commercial, Jenner joins a crowd of diverse faces engaging in a protest. She hands a Pepsi to one of the police officers manning the protest. He smiles, and of course, all is well.

In my mind, I know that the word “monkey” is a historically derogatory term to refer to Black people. I also know that the Pepsi commercial modeled its protest after the ongoing and very real Black Lives Matter movement, as well as other civil rights protests. These are obvious negative signals to me as a Black woman in America. These companies eventually apologized for “missing the mark,” but the truth of the matter is, if I had been on the marketing teams of those companies, those ads would have never made it to air.

This endless cycle of missing the mark and constant apologies has led me to look at the root of the problem. To be honest, I don’t have the answer, but it is worth the discussion and not just among people who look like me. I am not writing solely to condemn these decisions, but to actively explore what went wrong in these situations and understand how communicators can avoid them moving forward.

Another reason why this is an open discussion is because I, myself, only have a limited perception of the world as well. There are people with identities and experiences that I am not familiar with who are also affected in the same way by the messages we share as communicators and public relations professionals.

Consider this piece to be the beginning of a journey, one that you, as my readers, are taking along with me. I want to ask questions, hear other perspectives and continue to learn along the way. This isn’t a one-way street for information consumption. This about having the necessary conversations about how the industry needs to change and what we can do individually, and collectively, to change it.