By Clarene Mitchell
Originally published on LinkedIn,
August 31, 2017
Despite blowback the marketing industry received after the failed Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad earlier this year, and countless other examples, the industry continues to be tone deaf and culturally aloof when it comes to race and image.
A current case point example is a feature article in the September 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine on the upcoming local fashion week. Instead of having the class that is supposed to be synonymous with high-end fashion, one of the pages trivializes a major Wisconsin Black disparity.
The article in question is called, “A Cut Above.” It boasts of how dozens of “designers spent months cutting, sewing and finishing their 2017 collections for Milwaukee’s Fall Fashion Week in September.” The five-page spread includes models giving a sneak peek at some of the fashions, along with brief bios of the designers.
I’m not a fashionista, so I was only paying casual attention as a flipped through the pages containing the fashion spread. My attention abruptly went into full focus, and my blood pressure went up, when I saw the third page of the spread. I couldn’t focus on the fashion itself because my eyes were fixated on the backdrop.
The model (as seen in the cover graphic for this article) poses, in a mini-dress by Sarah Nasgowitz, in front of a mural of a Black man wearing ‘prison orange.’ The mural is one of many in Black Cat Mural Alley, an open-air mural gallery on Milwaukee’s eastside. When you see the mural in person, it takes your breath away because of its large scale.
The painting, ‘Devontay’, of the Black man in prison orange is bold and portrays the dark reality of far too many Black men in Wisconsin. The artist, Adam Stoner, stated in a TMJ4 news clip when the mural was initially unveiled: “The image should never be normalized to anyone.” As State Bar of Wisconsin President Fran Deisingerin stated in a March 1, 2017 article:
The issue of mass and disparate incarceration is one of the most important justice issues in our state.
But such points were lost on the photographer of the photo, Aliza Baran; the magazine’s art director, Paul John Higgins; and the editor-in-chief, Carole Nicksin. At no time during the process of setting up the shot, photographing it, selecting the photos, and making the final decision what goes and what doesn’t in the layout does it dawn on the three principles: “Uh, maybe we should consider a different photo.”
Perhaps Milwaukee Magazine and its editors were too consumed with their role as the city’s cheer leader to notice its glaring error. To busy helping—through its pages—the powers-that-be who run this city (i.e.: the business elite) fashion and cultivate a new image for our “city by the lake.”
With the magazine as its willing tool, the city’s power brokers and elites have created a Milwaukee that is a far cry from the “beer and brauts” image of the past.
Today’s Milwaukee (“MKE”) is cool, hip, trendy and focused on attracting young business professionals and even younger, freshly college graduated millennials thirsting to make their fortune in affluent new corridors of power and success, such as the Third Ward (Milwaukee’s new downtown), the Fifth Ward, and recently constructed neighborhoods along the Milwaukee River, close to the almost completed Bucks arena.
The new image is a far cry from the reality, however. The new Milwaukee isn’t for long-time denizens of this metropolis who are of color (unless you’re a newly arrived Black and Latino who is clueless to the history of disparities Milwaukeeans of color have lived with for decades, one of which is the high number of incarcerated Black men and boys from impoverished communities.
The city of Milwaukee has the largest population of Blacks in Wisconsin. The state of Wisconsin is known for having the highest incarceration rate of Black males in the country, most of those Black males having been arrested and convicted in Milwaukee. Considering this disparity, it is troubling to see a White model posed seductively in front of the mural.
The details of the 4,000 plastic cable ties that make a geometric pattern in the mini dress have no significance in contrast to the man with nothing but time on his hands that she stands before.
I’m not sure if the artistic director (Higgins)—for the set design—did this on purpose or out of ignorance. Nonetheless, it is a very disrespectful marketing ploy in a city trying to move past being one of the most racially segregated (though it’s hard to believe the city is trying hard given the façade of glitz and glam it has painstakingly built over the last 15 to 20 years.
It would behoove marketing firms to diversify their ranks to allow for more culturally appropriate imaging. It would greatly reduce—if not eliminate—such editorial mistakes. This marketing sector problem has been known and talked about for decades.
Recent reports reiterate the need, as nonwhite staff make up only 5 to 6 percent of marketing and advertising organizations nationally.
The time is long overdue for cultural inclusion at the creative and decision making tables for marketing campaigns (and around the tables of editor’ meetings). The group-think process, exclusive club way of doing business, should not continue. (Editor’s Note: Clarene Mitchell is the wife of MCJ editor Thomas Mitchell, Jr.)