Advertisers are increasingly recognizing that not everyone celebrates the holiday season with a Christmas tree.
The Postal Service is offering stamps that celebrate Ramadan and Kwanzaa. J. C. Penney's holiday television commercial features young girls celebrating Hanukkah, as well as scenes of Kwanzaa festivities. Stop and Shop Supermarket's print advertising featured Ramadan wishes last month, and Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa ads are planned for this month. And Orbitz's ads on the World Wide Web urge users to "spin the dreidel" for savings on air fares.
"It wasn't that long ago that every holiday commercial was all about Christmas," said Mike Rogers, president and executive creative director for the New York office of the Wolf Group. "Now, clients are more aware of the ethnic and racial makeup of our country and are tailoring their ads accordingly."
But advertisers' growing recognition of the nation's multicultural reality, no matter how belated, can backfire. If the marketing does not display an understanding of the nuances of religion or culture, the targets of the advertising could be turned off.
The trading of sugarplums and Santa for dreidels and Kwanzaa candles dovetails with marked changes in the demographic makeup of the country. According to a 2001 study released by the City University of New York, 76.5 percent of the country classifies itself as Christian. A decade ago, that number was 86 percent.
African Americans, who as a group posted a 21.5 percent increase, make up 12.3 percent of the population. And the number of people with some Hispanic background has grown to 12.5 percent, a 57.9 percent increase since the 1990 Census. Whites make up 75.1 percent.
Other marketers say increased awareness about racial and religious sensitivities after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is also contributing to the change.
No matter the reason, one researcher said, the change is a welcome one among minorities. "For groups like African Americans and Hispanics, there's a history of exclusion, so members of these groups are sensitive to this issue," said Dr. Andrew Erlich, a cross-cultural psychologist and principal of Erlich Transcultural Consultants of Woodland, Calif.
And inclusion is an important motivation behind marketers' new ads. J. C. Penney and its agency, the Chicago office of DDB Worldwide, part of the Omnicom Group, created the ads as part of its yearlong 100th anniversary celebration of the department store, said Vanessa Castagna, chief executive and chairwoman of J. C. Penney stores, catalog and Internet. The company's intention was to include images of diverse family groups. "We serve these markets and these customers and that's who we are and what we are," Ms. Castagna said.
Even when Santa and his elves are absent from ads, marketers are showing increased sensitivity to language. During the shooting of a new television commercial for the electronics retailer The Wiz, the last line of the ad was altered, said Mr. Rogers of the Wolf Group. Originally, the company's spokesman waved at the camera and said, "See you at the Christmas party." The company instead chose a more generic, "See you at the holiday party," he said.
Some marketers are eschewing holiday trappings altogether, said Carol Cleveland, principal of Cleveland Communications, a media planner based in Boston. "With the economy the way it is, consumers are focused on getting the best bargain. Advertisers are leading with very specific sales pitches - percentages off or special sales - instead of trying to evoke a feeling or affinity."
But ethnocentric marketing - like last year's Sear's television ad in California that showed an Asian Santa Claus - is expected to grow. "By branching out past Christmas, the advertisers are telling consumers, `We understand who you are as an individual,' " said Maria Bailey, chief executive of the marketing company BSM Media and the author of "Marketing to Moms: Getting Your Share of the Trillion-Dollar Market." BSM is based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Gary Pinheiro, planning director at Ogilvy & Mather, owned by the WPP Group, said that diversity concerns played a larger role in campaigns' conceptions. "When we grew up, we were told all people are created equal and that everyone had to be treated exactly the same," he said. "Now, we're realizing that while the first statement is true, it's not only acceptable but desirable to celebrate people's differences."
Some experts say this strategy can prove problematic. There is always a risk that multiethnic and multicultural advertising will offend members of other ethnic and religious groups.
"Oftentimes, marketers know there's going to be some backlash by a vocal minority, and some are fearful of that, but the majority of advertisers have this expectation in advance and aren't bothered too much by it," Dr. Erlich said.
What is more dangerous, he said, is that many advertisers plan campaigns based on limited knowledge of a particular group. Since there can be many subcategories within groups, marketers can alienate the consumers they are courting.
Mr. Pinheiro of Ogilvy & Mather said advertisers could temper their risks by running small focus groups. "This is vital," he said. "It's quite easy to miss something when marketing to smaller groups just because it wasn't something that was on your radar."
Still, many experts think the risks of the multicultural approach are overshadowed by the potential for success. "Advertisers will see that more targeted advertising really works, especially when they speak to all of their customers in a meaningful way," Ms. Bailey said.
Karen J. Bannan, The New York Times. December 2, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.