Ad Agencies Walk Fine Line In Tapping Inner-City Trends

Can large corporations appeal to both urban blacks and suburbia?

Stand aside, suburbia. Here comes "inner-city chic."

If trends in advertising are any guide, the punch of rap rhythm and the baggy pants and back-turned caps of hip-hop artists should nudge their way further into America's tranquil bedroom communities.

Advertisers are increasingly eager to jazz up their sales pitch with the fashions of the "urban market."

First, the buying power of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian American consumers in US cities is on the rise, say advertising industry experts.

Just as important, the new tastes and style of urban minorities often spark fads in the broad consumer market both inside and outside the city. Advertisers say that if they can anticipate and harness cutting-edge city fashions, they can more quickly shape and exploit the fads among millions of consumers.

"Baseball or football starter jackets started in the inner city with gangs and then they became very, very popular outside the city," says Ray Gillette, president of integrated services at DDB Needham's office in Chicago. "Baggy jeans and hip-hop clothes all started in the inner city, and now they're wearing them in Iowa."

In a sign of advertisers' keen awareness of the payoff from city fashion, movie director Spike Lee and DDB Needham recently launched an advertising joint venture. Mr. Lee, the African-American director of dozens of commercial ads and 10 films, will direct commercials and help create advertising campaigns at SPIKE/DDB.

DDB Needham will provide research, accounting, strategic planning, and other support services.

"Prior to SPIKE/DDB, no one thought of a way to reach the urban market, and we and others have only talked at the urban market," says Mr. Gillette at DDB. "Now we can talk to the urban market - lining ourselves up with Spike Lee gives us a clear advantage and insight," he says.

The joint venture is an effort by a major advertiser to gain credibility among urban minorities and make inroads in an advertising arena dominated by small niche firms. It reflects a growing awareness among US advertisers and makers of consumer products that minorities in US cities - especially African-Americans - are a promising and comparatively neglected market. In fact, US companies have doubled their spending on advertising to black consumers over the past decade, experts say.

The potential payoff is irresistible. African-Americans wielded $324 billion in spending power last year, a 6.5 percent increase over 1994, according to Target Market News, a market-research company in Chicago.

The long-term trend is just as alluring. The buying power of blacks has swelled 40.5 percent since 1990, compared with a 35.2 percent rise for the general population, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia in Athens.

"There is an industrywide perception that the black consumer market may be the last big undertapped opportunity for many companies," says Ken Smikle, publisher of Target Market News.

Among makers of some consumer products, African-Americans carry far more weight than their numbers would suggest. The amount black consumers spent on cars and trucks jumped 156 percent last year, versus a 9 percent rise among white consumers. The average black household spends 48 percent more than its white counterpart on food prepared at home, says Target Market News.

But for large advertising firms that traditionally have catered to white mainstream consumers, appealing to the urban black consumer will prove challenging, even with a big-name figure like Lee, advertising executives say.

Large firms that draw their income stream from many markets have long found it difficult to plug into street trends from the top down. In contrast, black-oriented niche firms that depend solely on staying abreast of grass-roots city culture often have streetwise employees who help them stay current. These firms have gained an extra edge by advancing broad advertising campaigns in radio, TV, and print.

For black-run ad agencies, the workaday life of urban African-Americans "is something that is a part of us; we experience it every day in some way, shape or form," says Gene Morris, president of E. Morris Communications Inc. in Chicago. "A lot of times, even if something is right before a general market agency, they'll miss it because they don't understand what it is they're looking at or hearing."

DDB Needham and other large firms betray an ambivalence toward minority cultures by referring to them with the sweeping tag "urban market" instead of "black urban" or "Hispanic urban." The big advertisers worry they will turn off many white consumers by openly stating that some trends spring from city minorities. Pop radio stations in the 1970s seized on the same sort of euphemism, hiding black music behind the tag "urban contemporary music," say advertising experts.

" 'Urban market' are code words for black people," says Mr. Morris.

" 'Urban market' has become one of those phrases that can be used comfortably by those who don't want to say black or African-American," says Smikle.

Ultimately, advertising firms sanitize for middle-class suburban consumers trends in city culture that have emerged among minorities as an expression of alienation or anger. This allows mainstream consumers to flaunt street culture's rakish style without living out its dangerous ways, industry experts say.

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