How The Right Multicultural Market Research Can Change Everything
Marketing to today’s audiences can prove challenging, especially with the changing nature of the ethnic composition of the US. Reaching such a diverse audience and resonating with them in a lasting, authentic way has becoming a more complex task. Despite this, ABC seems to be getting it right more consistently than most and the way in which they are doing so is something that brand marketers everywhere would be wise to pay attention to.
ABC appears to have hit upon a formula that is successfully garnering the attention of the industry and viewers by offering nuanced portrayals of ethnic-lead storylines that speak to universal experiences that the (increasingly multi-ethnic) general population finds relatable. The network’s strategic use of “insider” codes and signifiers to portray the true-to-life lived experiences of ethnic groups in the US is what is helping set it apart from its competitors.
The freshest example of this today is ABC’s Quantico, where a diverse cast of FBI recruits become the central targets during an investigation of one of their own. In Quantico’s “God” episode, first aired on November 1, viewers get to know one of the show’s central characters, Miranda Shaw, an FBI Academy Director. Despite the fact that she is an accomplished Director we learn that Shaw is struggling to manage her son, Charlie who has a troubled past with the law. As a professional she is at the top of her game, but as a mother, she is terrified that Charlie will fall into his old ways again. Shaw’s challenge of balancing her career and family responsibilities is a reflection of a very real challenge that’s experienced by many real-life working parents, and taps into a key shared insight for a large television demographic: parents.
During this episode, however, there is a moment between Miranda and Charlie, where the specific truth of her identity comes into play. In the scene, Miranda physically grabs Charlie by the collar of his shirt and pushes him up against a fence until they are standing directly eye to eye. The emotion in her words to him are a mix of anger, concern, and most of all fear, as she warns him that the next time he gets into trouble it will mean prison — and that she won’t be able to rescue him from it. She also reveals that the steps she’s taken to ensure his safety to this point haunt her every day:
“that’s the only reason you’re out of that place and that terrifies me because I don’t know if I did the right thing or if I just made it easier for the next time you want to shoot somebody…I wake up every morning thanking God you’re alive and you have the chance to be the man I know you can be.”
This brief exchange showcases the complex and nuanced cultural realities that inform the character’s identity because Miranda Shaw is actually a Black woman. This scene explores an all too familiar feeling for many Black mothers raising Black sons, both today and in the past. The physical assault on her son is meant to wake him up to the seriousness of his situation.
This dimension of the lived experiences of Black parents has been reflected both in academia and in real life. Just recently, the National Book Award Winning “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates highlighted the sometimes fervent way in which Black parents tend to discipline their children, often due to historical fears surrounding the safety of their child’s wellbeing. Additionally, just this year a Baltimore mother, Toya Graham, was caught on camera confronting her son, who was a part of a group of rioters protesting the death of Freddie Gray, a 25 year-old African American who died in police custody. In the footage, she can be seen smacking her son while talking to him aggressively. When interviewed, Graham stated that he was her “only son and at the end of the day I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray” and that hopefully “by him seeing everything what’s going on I just hope, I’m not sure, but I hope that he understands the seriousness of what was going on last night.”
The Black-Mother-to-Black-Son scene in Quantico took less than 2 minutes, but it carried with it the historicity of the Black parenting experience that only viewers who were raised in or around Black households could fully grasp. For others, the scene was also affecting — a passionate exchange between a concerned parent and her disillusioned child — but likely did not have the same implicit meanings or personal resonance as it did for Black viewers. While much of the story line itself added to the complexity of who she was, none of it contributed to the authenticity of her character as much as the scene between her and her son.
What Quantico reveals is a possible network shift from a multicultural strategy to a “Total Market Strategy” — and it’s a shift TV’s advertising partners would do well to emulate. It’s only recently that the media industry has hit upon a way to talk to the exponentially growing minority populations in the US, moving away from programs created using strict ethnically-driven segmentations. Now shows like Quantico are taking center stage — anchored in an authenticity of ethnic insights — but capturing viewers across the spectrum by employing universal human truths.
ABC has not only found the right formula, but they are currently setting the standard with Quantico and the network’s other successful, ethnically-led programs, which will have influential ripple effects not only for television programming but also for other media formats. They’ve been able to find a way to lock on to real human truths that resonate with their audience members across ethnicities in a way that positions the network as a credible source for entertainment with authentic character portrayals.
It’s a lesson that still needs to be taken to heart by most advertisers, who are, in general, still trying to grasp how to adequately account for ethnic experiences and portrayals in an authentic way that is successful and measurable. The more consumers become accustomed to seeing true representations of the lived experiences of their everyday lives in the media they consume, the higher the bar will be raised, and advertisers will have to figure out how they, too, can employ and measure the effectiveness of a Total Market Strategy that speaks simultaneously as broadly and with as much cultural nuance as possible.