Sharpton, Race, and Online Ads

On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the Rev. Al Sharpton stood in a ballroom in Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria and asked a roomful of marketing executives to pray. The ceremony opened Sharpton’s Invitational Summit on Multicultural Media, which let marketers loudly register a complaint: Black, Latino and Asian-oriented media outlets fetch fewer ad dollars than their white counterparts.

The summit focused on advertising, but the subject on many people’s minds was the Internet – as a catalyst for change or as a demonstration of how quickly the media can impose a traditional approach to the latest technology.

The Internet’s marketing potential, specifically its ability to reach very precise demographics at low cost, has not been adequately tested on minority markets. And if any group could understand how important the Internet could be in attracting minority-focused advertising dollars and how easily the Web could evolve to exclude ethnic minorities, it was gathered in this ballroom.

“There is a bargain that exists in a market-driven economy,” says Lloyd Grant, publisher of the Kip Business Report, a newsmagazine that chronicles black business, who spoke at the Summit. “I spend money with you, and you spend money cultivating me as a market. That deal has not been kept in traditional media [for minority markets].”

But the Web could enable advertisers to start again. “The Internet Economy is going to change everything,” says Grant. “It represents a new urban dictate: Get information out to the public based on who reciprocates in that trade agreement.”

Grant is worried, however, that big business may close the door. “Already, the big guys have moved in – AOL (dossier), Netcenter. These services reach millions of people. I’m not sure they’ll be interested in a niche audience.”

Some are even more pessimistic. “The Internet has gone mainstream incredibly quickly,” says Elinor Tatum, publisher and editor in chief of the Amsterdam News, a century-old black newspaper based in New York. “We’re still going to have disparities, because of the gap in access to the Internet between African-American households and the rest of the country.”

Tom Burrell, chairman and CEO of Burrell Communications Group (dossier), one of the country’s largest and oldest African-American ad agencies, says the Internet represents broader opportunities for African-American business. “It’s going to be used the same way traditional media is,” says Burrell. But the anonymity of doing business over the Internet means “you can get into it without having to deal with the race thing.”

Will Sharpton feel compelled to call another summit a year or two down the line, this time specific to the Web? “I probably will!” he told The Standard. “This is not a one-night stand at the Waldorf-Astoria,” he continued. “This is a marriage.”