business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

The new Procter & Gamble ad, about racism in America, has in a short time created both conversations and controversy.

It is called “The Talk,” and it looks at generations of African-American parents who have a conversation with their children, explaining about the specific and unique challenges they will face in the world. The names they will be called. The suspicions they may face. The bias they will encounter, just because of the color of their skin.

“Let’s all talk about ‘The Talk’,” the ad says, “so we can end the need to have it.”

The ad is not connected to any of P&G’s brands, and the company says it is just the beginning of a series that will focus on specific societal issues. Gender equality reportedly is on the list of subjects to be addressed.

Not everybody is positive about the ad, with some calling it racist. National Review criticized it for pandering to “identity politics.”

Electronic Urban Report notes that the ad also can be seen as anti-police, with one white police offer writing on P&G’s Facebook page, “I am a proud parent of 2 African American kiddos and I’m a cop. I will no longer buy any P & G products. Your divisive and biased ads will not create more customers. More will stop buying your products.”

However, the response from some in the African-American community has been more positive. Jamilah Lemieux, vice president of digital at i-One Digital, told CBS News, "I can't say I've seen a commercial like this before … I guess I'm struggling to find the intended audience for this commercial. If it is in fact African-Americans then one can say you're preaching to the choir. If this is in fact a commercial that is targeted toward white Americans ... then I have to say this is pretty commendable. I'm wondering what are the next steps.”

If conversation and controversy indeed are what P&G was intending, I;’d have to say that they got their money’s worth.

This isn’t the first time that P&G has taken this approach. You may remember that a couple of years ago it did the “Like A Girl” commercial for its Always feminine hygiene brand, which sent an important message that transcended gender and focused on empowerment; I thought at the time that it was both a smart piece of filmmaking and intelligent advertising by a relevant brand. (You can check it out here.)

It seems to me that “The Talk” goes farther and is much stronger, if only because they had to know going in that there was the potential for alienating a percentage of the audience/customer base. The only folks likely to be alienated by the “Like A Girl” ad were hardcore male chauvinists and maybe one now-former Google engineer.

I’ve watched the ad several times now, and I’ve had several different reactions to it.

To begin with, I cannot imagine what it would be like to send my children off into the world believing that they are at greater risk because of the color of their skin. I’ve had talks with my kids, but never “the talk.”

I think the criticisms of the ad are overblown, though if I’d been producing the ad, I might’ve had one scene in which an African-American cop had “the talk” with a son or daughter, if only to blunt the criticism that it is anti-police.

I must admit that I’ve also wondered a little bit about the strategy behind it. Could such an ad really sell more Tide or Gillette razor blades?

Maybe, in the end, that doesn’t matter.

There are some things we know. One is that young people are less brand loyal than their elders; sometimes they are even suspicious of the companies that make such brands. However, they will show some loyalty to brands that they see as being socially responsible, and/or reflective of their values.

We also know that young people tend to be far more tolerant than their others. Discussions that have polarized earlier generations - about gay rights and acceptance of the LGBQT community, for example - are far less important to them.

A company like Procter & Gamble, then, needs to figure out ways to prove to young people not just that its products are relevant to their lives, but resonant in how these customers see the world.

And I think that’s what this ad is about - smart, provocative, willing to take both a position and a chance, and in the end, Eye-Opening.

Good for Procter & Gamble and the agency that produced this ad. I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

KC's View: