Spike Lee likes television commercials. The director of such caustic commentaries on US society as Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X is an ad man himself – the chief executive and majority shareholder of Spike DDB, an advertising agency unit of Omnicom, the world's largest marketing services company.
But even Mr Lee has his limits. He cringed when Nike, the sportswear maker, ran television ads this year that featured LeBron James, the US teenage basketball sensation, displaying his ball-handling skills in an African-American church packed with a swaying congregation of basketballluminaries.
“That LeBron James ad where he comes in the church where negroes are flying through the air doing somersaults [and] tomahawk dunks – to me that was sacrilegious,” observes Mr Lee, speaking at his company's headquarters in Madison Avenue. “I defy anyone to tell me that they will see a commercial that will take place in a synagogue selling any kind of products, or a Catholic church. That was a complete mockery of African-American faith and the black church.”
Mr Lee's observations are particularly noteworthy because, as he puts it, “I'm a Nike person.” He directed and acted in a series of groundbreaking ads with Michael Jordan, the basketball star, that helped establish Nike's Air Jordan trainers as the epitome of street fashion in the 1980s. He is also a fan of Mr James, since his ad agency cast him in one of its advertisements. But Mr Lee is a social critic, too, and his reaction to the Nike church ad provides a glimpse into the sensitivities involved in the growing business of US ethnic marketing. Advertisers have been focusing on African-Americans, Hispanics and other US minority groups because of new data demonstrating their buying power.
African-Americans in the US, if considered as a separate country, would rank 11th by gross national product, according to UniWorld, an ad agency associate of WPP, the UK marketing services company. More than a quarter of African-Americans earn more than $50,000 a year.
At the same time, advertisers have seen an opportunity to reach a new group of consumers that they call “urban” – people of various races who respond to trends emanating from cities. This audience would include everyone from urban professionals accustomed to living in interracial areas to the legions of white suburbanites who have become devotees of rap music – a group so large that it has invited parody in the form of Ali G, the comic creation of the UK's Sacha Baron Cohen now known to television audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Dana Wade, Spike DDB president, estimates that about three-quarters of its business is “urban”, with the rest focused on African-American consumers.
Mr Lee says he formed his agency – which employs about 45 people – in the late 1990s because he grew frustrated directing other people's ideas. He owns a 51 per cent stake, with the rest held by DDB Worldwide, one of Omnicom's ad agency networks. But even with majority control, Mr Lee still faces obstacles in the form of corporate notions of African-Americans.
Spike DDB's recent work includes a Pepsi-Cola ad that was based on the opera Carmen - with the singer Beyoncé Knowles in the starring role. But Mr Lee and Ms Wade say many potential clients still want to portray African-Americans – particularly young men - in less flattering ways.
Ms Wade says: “There is a certain kind of imagery using young African-American men that Americans at large are willing to accept – and that's gangster, over-the-top imagery.” Mr Lee adds: “I hear from a lot of my actor friends that when they go on an audition, they [white directors] go: ‘Can you be a little blacker? Can you be a little more street?'”
The result is that, as Mr Lee and Ms Wade see it, African-Americans still exist in an advertising ghetto. Companies selling cars and clothes, or food and drink, or financial services such as insurance, clearly care about minority audiences. But marketers of luxury goods steer clear.
“The more luxury-oriented the brand becomes, the more afraid the marketing organisation is,” Ms Wade says. “We are missing in the luxury areas completely. They want to believe that allAfrican-Americans are poor and that we are all uneducated. Thank God for the census, in some way, because people discovered that there was not only a middle class, but an upper middle class in the African-American community.”
Mr Lee says the popularity of African-American culture suggests that African-Americans have a greater appeal than many advertisers assume. In this sense, he leaves the impression that he would like his advertising agency to take on a more universal tone.
“We [African-Americans] are the ones generating everything as far as fashion, music, language, whatever, goes – but then we are not thought of as being universal and appealing to everybody. If we didn't appeal to everybody, why wouldAfrican-American culture be siphoned off or appropriated?” he says. “What makes us distinct at Spike DDB is that we think we can market to anybody. We have never, ever, ever, had the mindset as African-Americans that what we do and who we are and what we project is limited and not universal.”
But for all his universalist ambitions, Mr Lee remains a defender of the faith in a sense – an African-American keen to protect his culture against those who would exploit it or reduce it to minstrelsy. This is hardly a new threat in US society, but Mr Lee remains a keen preservationist.
“African-American culture has always been appropriated. Look at Aunt Jemima. Look at Uncle Ben,” Mr Lee says. “One of the – you might say – hustles is how to be black without being black. A lot of people who mastered that made a whole lot of money. You go down the line: Elvis, Eminem, the Beatles when they started out, the Rolling Stones, AlJolson.”
Ms Wade says in some cases the agency has broken off relations with clients that stepped over the line into exploitation. She declines to name the companies, explaining that Spike DDB wants to handle such situations “politely”.
“When you know you are getting robbed and you know what they want to do is co-opt African-American culture and turn it into something that they believe is African-American culture, you have to move on,” she says. “The good guys are coming because they want to understand the consumer and they don't want to make mistakes. When they come here, with Spike as our leader, they come with an understanding, for the most part, that whatever we do will be respectful of the consumer. There is stuff we are just not going to do.”
Mr Lee waited until the end of the interview to mention that he has a film coming out - She Hate Me - and only then to link its theme to his Spike DDB work. Even in advertising, Mr Lee says his ambition is to teach people how to do the right thing.
“A lot of what Dana and I have to do is educate our clients, who just don't know. They have a monolithic view of African-Americans: that we all look alike, talk alike, come from the same social and economic background.
“If there's racism in the world, in America, it's going to be in the educational system, it's going to be inmovies, it's going to be in advertising.”