Beyond Beyoncé


After being lampooned by Jessica Williams on the Daily Show, Bill Varney responded by reiterating the very question that made him a late night laughingstock:

“Why do we have to bring race into everything in America, including the halftime show of the Super Bowl?”

While Bill is perplexed as to why race is brought “into everything in America,” I am incredulous as to why America refuses to acknowledge that everything is about race.

The Super Bowl is a perfect example.

The NFL is run by a cadre of rich white men. Its sole purpose is to give team owners, rich white men all, a forum in which their overwhelmingly black teams can compete. (NFL players are 68% black, as compared to the US population which is 13% black.) “Owners” also “draft” and “trade” their players.

Oddly, despite the fact that roughly 7-in-10 players are black, quarterbacks — the ones who “shout” the “orders” at the rest of the team — are virtually 100% white, and there has never been a black Super Bowl MVP.

As we witnessed at Super Bowl 50, Cam Newton is a welcome exception to the white quarterback club. He was courted with scholarships as a high school athlete, won the Heisman Trophy as a college athlete, and took the Panthers to the Super Bowl after winning Offensive Player of the Year in 2015.

But for all of those hard-earned accolades and coveted awards, if you were to transport Cam Newton and Bill Varney into midtown Manhattan right this second, who do you think would have more difficulty getting a cab at dusk? Who would be more likely to be pulled over if he was driving? Who would be more likely to get stop and frisked outside a bodega?

Who would be more likely to be mistaken as a worker at Nobu, a valet (or worse) outside the Grand Hyatt, a homeless man while waiting to cross the street?

Statistically speaking, who is more likely to have close friends in prison, to be the product of a single-parent home and an underfunded public school, to be shot by an officer of the law?

Beyoncé didn’t “bring race into” the Super Bowl; she gave a performance that illustrated the obvious. And what better venue to do so than the Super Bowl, the most watched television event of the year (the brain damage to which players — but not owners — are subject not withstanding).

Let us hope that we can use “Formation” as the beginning of a dialog that challenges the status quo of racial disparity rather than write it off as (to quote Rudy Giuliani) “a bunch of people bouncing.”

Their Bulletproof Vests

You grow accustomed to the heavy NYC Police and US Army presence in Penn Station. The stun guns and M16s amidst rush hour crowds don’t bother me.

What bothers me are the bulletproof vests.

Targets wear bulletproof vests, not guardians of the peace. And if these heavily armed, trained gunmen see themselves as targets, what do they see me as, and whom are they really there to protect?

Insight, Part 2: Do blondes have more fun?

In Part 1 of this musing, I mentioned the following data points (c/o the Harvard Business Review):

  • Blondes earn 7% more than brunettes
  • Husbands of blonde women earn an average of 6% more than the husbands of women with other hair colors

That said, in this case, synthesizing a sound insight is not as straightforward as it was in the case of Sedaris’ observed correlation between marshmallows and faith in god.

Firstly, there is the subject matter: even when asked under testing conditions, people are prone to over-report their income, and minimize the extent to which personal insecurities affect their choices about their appearance.

Secondly, to synthesize an insight, say, for a women’s beauty product, we’d also have to determine whether or not non-blonde women are propensed to change the color of their hair for financial gain or materialistic matrimony.

Thirdly, we’d probably want to survey employers as well, none of whom would admit to appearance playing a part in salary level – and most of whom would not even be conscious of this phenomenon if it proved to exist.

There are ways to adjust for all of this so that accurate data is captured during testing. However the accuracy of the data will not help to avoid the next pitfall in our beauty campaign scenario: What to do if a strong correlation between a woman’s desire to be blond and her desire for money proves to exist?

While “blonds have more money and more fun” may be a sound insight, it is also be rather a brash message for a beauty product. Or is it?

The beauty industry relies heavily on celebrity endorsement in their advertising, the implication being that a portion of a celebrity’s success is attributable to the way a product makes him or her look. More “established” celebrities, who tend to be older than “rising star” celebrities, are preferred, the subtext being “I got to where I am today with the help of the products that made be beautiful.” To paraphrase, “I’m rich because of the way I look, and you can be as well.” Or as Kelly LeBrock said on behalf of Pantene, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”

“Blonds have more money and more fun” would make for a ruthless tagline, but, it the case at hand, it is both a valid insight and a message which advertisers have successfully conveyed in subtle – and at times not so subtle ways.

In the end, one should never fear synthesizing an unflattering insight; affective creative can take the harshest of truths about human nature and deliver them in a ways that make us feel confident, optimistic and, yes, even beautiful.