Targeting without alienating: multicultural advertising and the subtleties of targeted advertising

Guillaume D. Johnson

University of Witwatersrand

Sonya A. Grier

American University


Nations worldwide are experiencing a rising multiculturalisation. In countries such as the UK, US and Canada, a complex and multidimensional market has replaced the ‘average consumer’, where minorities are the new majority (Jamal 2003; Johnson 2009; Statistics Canada 2010). This growing diversity has had important political, social and economic impact on these countries. Specifically, minority groups’ size growth has been accompanied by a growth in spending power that has significantly encouraged advertisers to use cultural group membership as a major targeting variable.

Extensive advertising research has provided rich insights into the effectiveness of such targeting practice (e.g. Lee et al. 2002; Martin et al. 2004; Brumbaugh & Grier 2006). These studies show that minority groups’ members respond more favourably to advertisements targeting them (i.e. target market effects), whereas majority groups’ members respond more unfavourably to advertisements not targeting them (i.e. non-target market effects; Aaker et al. 2000). However, as the cultural diversity of the nations grows, and the distinction between minority and majority groups blurs, managing the effects of target and non-target markets becomes increasingly challenging for advertisers. Importantly, advertising research has overlooked the fact that the cultural diversity expansion has not been uniform within countries. For instance, while recent projections reveal that by 2031 one in three Canadians will belong to a minority ethnic group, about 96% of these ethnic minorities will live in cities (Statistics Canada 2010). By 2031, ‘visible minority’ groups would comprise 63% of the population of Toronto, 59% in Vancouver and 31% in Montreal. In contrast, they would comprise less than 5% of the population in St John’s, Greater Sudbury or Quebec (Statistics Canada 2010). Observers argue that such a discrepancy could give birth to ‘two Canadas’, where the concerns of one will not necessary resonate with the concerns of the other (Friesen 2010). Such a situation could place advertisers using mainstream media in an invidious position. Indeed, commercial imperatives dictate that marketing campaigns should target different cultural segments, but on the other hand, these initiatives should not reject the rest of the market. The present research addresses the quandary faced by businesses that want to target specific cultural segments in order to improve the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns, but must handle the important risks of non-target market effects. We examine how advertisers can target a specific cultural group within the mainstream media without alienating other cultural groups.