Why brands need to stop misusing pop culture references to attract black audiences

How many times have we seen adverts and campaigns mimic the lived experiences of black people?  There are so many examples I could mention about how wrong creatives have been in stereotyping certain groups for social capital whether racially or culturally, and sadly it hasn’t stopped. 

With the rise of social media, one would have assumed that brands and creatives utilise social media platforms to do their research through social listening and understand sentiments around certain topics and subjects. Brands like Nandos have positioned themselves strategically where they execute social commentary without trying too hard because relevance and context is key.

So where are other brands going wrong?

A month ago, a very popular sanitary brand had launched a social media campaign where their intention was to empower women through menstrual education. However, through lack of understanding of pop culture references, the campaign didn’t take off as expected.

When we speak of pop culture references, we speak about elements of pop culture in movies, shows, music, street lingo and even Black Twitter trends. Think “moghel” which Bonang and Pinky Girl popularised and “Nka screamer gore” which is often used to describe being in an unfortunate situation.

When brands step in and borrow these references, creatives need to understand the context in which these references are used so that it makes sense when trying to communicate some sort of key messaging to their audiences.

The bigger issue at hand is that some brands think that by using these references, they’re calling on black audiences, grab their attention and their job is done assuming that it will get the same traction as the reference did on social media. To simplify this, it’s like trying to crack a joke that was already told by someone else and expecting your audience to give you the same reaction.

While some brands have made it work, it’s taken them years to build a solid foundation and identity for them to easily plug in pop culture where they see fit because the brand’s messaging and the reference align.

So how can brands lessen their cultural appropriation?

  1. Research – Understand pop culture references beyond them trending at number one on Twitter. Even if it means calling on your black colleagues, please do so because it can save lives and reputations.
  2. Know your audience – While every brand has their key target audience, not every cultural reference will be applicable to them including black audiences. Dissect your audiences well enough to understand what they consume and take direction from there. The one size fits all approach is so old school and you’ll likely get dragged for it.
  3. Stop trying too hard – People will like you regardless of whether you’ve hopped on a social media trend or not. If your messaging is clear and concise to someone, that’s all you really need.
  4. Alignment – As the saying goes, “make it make sense” which is very relevant in this instance. Don’t use a reference because it’s trending when it has no relevance to your messaging or identity. Not every brand will be like Nandos which is why it’s always important to know who you are than to emulate another brand’s work.

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