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American-Muslims And The Advertising Agency Dilemma

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The world is a crazy place right now so, we decided try and make sense of at leat one puzzle: Islamic/Arab/Desi advertising in the U.S. Naturally, we contacted Michael Hastings-Black who runs Desedo Films with director Raafi Rivero. The firm specializes in new media and minority markets.

After the jump, Hastings-Black goes through who is doing right, wrong and what your agency should be on the look out for.

1. What are the assumptions that advertising agencies need to wipe away when considering advertising directly to the Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim demographic in America?

“Well, the first thing to wipe away is the idea of one demo. The mass-media identity conflation of religion and ethnicity has fostered that idea, and while there is cultural cross-pollination, there is no blanket strategy. Same way within the Latino market, you don’t advertise to the Mexican-American demo using cultural cues from Puerto Rico.

Agencies/brands avoid (overtly) engaging religion as a sales strategy, but that given the deft nature of new media, this could be rethought. And while religion may be the point of entry for the strategy, to not forget that it is one aspect of a person.”


2. Considering the legendary Dunkin Donuts incident with Rachel Ray, do you believe that it is worth the risk for brands to market to this demographic?

Totally worth it. American-Muslims have $170B of spending power and a higher-than-average household income, it’s a just a matter of time before smart brands test these waters. I’m curious to see if those who invest along the lines of Sharia (Islamic principles) better weather the recession. Having more disposable income in these times could accelerate this process.

While Michelle Malkin and her minions may make this ‘risky’, at the end of the day, money talks. Witness the courtship of the Gay/Lesbian consumer. I think it might follow a similar pattern until Islamaphobia subsides.

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3. Wal-Mart has opened a store in Dearborn designed specifically for the Muslim and Middle-Eastern consumer. Why do you think it is that Wal-Mart was unafraid to capitalize on and market directly to this market?

I think that Wal-Mart is so entrenched in American consumption, esp red states, that it can afford to ‘take a risk’ . Dunkin Donuts may cave under pressure, but a Wal-Mart boycott would be nigh impossible. Ikea is another big box that’s reaching out to American-Muslims in Dearborn, MI.

4. What brand do you think has best reached out to the this marketplace in America?

In America, look to what brands are doing in Dearborn, MI to see overtures. But beyond that microcosm, there ain’t much. A lot could be done within new media, given the ease of targeting ad buys, so i think we might start seeing it there, We know many blogs that would be the right place to start. What will be worth watching is how the space of secular/sacred or religious/cultural aspects of Islam are handled.

Just read a great case study about Sunsilk shampoo in Indonesia. Mastercard in the UK. Starbucks did special frappucinos for Ramadan in the Middle East. Whomever opens the first ad agency that caters to this demo could see quite the windfall. And at Desedo we’ve got a really cute animated series in development, if any brands want in…

5. What is one of the worst?

“Hollywood.”

6. In your research paper, you cite one person as saying: “part of the problem is that it is difficult for ad execs to create an advertising profile for Muslims as a whole, because [they] come from many diverse backgrounds and believe many different things.” Question: isn’t that true for Asians and Blacks living in America? Why do you think the ad industry still does not have a grasp on identifying and marketing to various ethnic identities?

“Wow, there are many answers to that question, here is one thought:

Outside of humor, advertising is a generally risk-adverse platform. So if you’re attempting to ‘reach’ a demo via broadcast, it’s a massive investment and agencies/brands play it safe. So the same tropes get trotted out. Blacks get ‘soul’, Latinos gets ‘family’, Asians get ‘sedulous’, etc…

While agencies may intuitively understand that a black guy can love both Jay-Z and Modest Mouse, you’re not (yet) gonna see that multiplicity reflected in traditional advertising. Luckily, the authorship space of new media and rise of transmedia planning is slowly changing this…”

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