“Are Black History Month Ads Still Necessary in 2012?”

Every year around this time, the question of whether Black History Month is still relevant is asked.  But I’ve got a different question: Are Black History Month Ads still relevant? You know, the ads that fill your newspapers and magazines every February from corporate advertisers displaying, hopefully, how much they understand and support the African American consumer. I’ve worked on more than a few of these ads in my nearly 20 year advertising career. When it’s done well*, Black History Month ads can be a powerful way to communicate a cultural sensitivity and commitment to recognize the contributions of African Americans.

Macy’s 2012 Black History Month creative*, featuring celebrated African-American artist Romare Bearden’s lithograph, The Lamp, is a beautiful example of when it’s done well. In 2009, Coca-Cola created a series of lovely Black History Month ads that delivered uplifting messages like “BE GIVING”, “BE DRIVEN”, “BE LEGENDARY” and “BE HEARD” along with powerful contemporary illustrations and original poetry. And McDonald’s has an initiative that strives to celebrate African American achievements and history all year long, called 365Black.

When Black History Month ads are done badly or awkwardly, the price can be deadly. Remember last year when the Los Angeles Clippers ran a Black History Month ad in the wrong month? Plus, the ad offered free admission to “underprivileged children”. The implication that the Black children attending the game are likely underprivileged is even more insulting. Also last year, Nissan North America’s multi-city Black History Month billboard campaign sparked controversy because the word “history” was crossed out and replaced with “future.” Nice try, but no. And take a look at the ad* below for Regions Bank featuring a B&W image of pioneer Dr. Charles Drew riding a bicycle with a young African American girl. Huh?

These efforts are clearly not meant to insult; what marketer intentionally angers their target audience? However, the number of missteps out there suggests that many brands don’t have experienced African American marketers on their teams.

So, what’s the verdict? Are Black History Month Ads still necessary or not? IMHO, all ads speaking to African Americans, whether they run in February or any time of the year, should be thoughtful, clever and based on insights that serve to connect the brand or product to the people in a meaningful way. And that’s always relevant.