Sunday, July 24, 2011

Aspirational marketing in black communities

On Friday I was talking about cycle chic that sends an affirmational message: "You can be just as chic as you are ... on a bike!" Tonight I'll write about marketing that sends an aspirational message: "You're not chic now, but you could be ... on a bike!" These have the potential to be dishonest and manipulative, but we need something to counter the dishonest and manipulative car ads.

And now I think I'm ready to address Elly Blue's tweets about cycle chic, inspired by the meetings about North Williams Avenue in Portland, Oregon.
I'm more & more convinced that PR/branding campaigns to make cycling look chic & attractive do more harm than good. Watching bicycling get tangled up w/gentrification & race in PDX is what's convincing me. It shouldn't be exclusive. ... Branding bicycling as upscale *is* exclusive, offputting. Do the (relatively) rich really need our scarce advocacy resources & energy?

Well, yes. As always, it comes down to your goals. If your only goal is access for all, then you don't want to spend anything on the rich. Even then, getting the rich to give up their cars often ends up providing more support for transportation that poor people can use. But if your goals include preserving our resources, keeping our water clean and our children safe, building stronger societies and combating obesity, then you need to get everyone out of their cars, even Mike Bloomberg.

Beyond that, though, Blue makes an excellent point that also came up in relation to another Portland bike lane project: that people tend to support government projects that they feel are for "us" (or "future us") and withhold support from projects for "them." People who think of cyclists as "us" (whether they ride or not) tend to support bicycle infrastructure, while people who think of cyclists as "them" tend to oppose it.

Blue is arguing that the concerns about the North Williams project come from the black residents thinking of cyclists as "them." Based on Maus's posts, I'm not convinced that it's happening in this instance. There are other instances, though, where black people have spoken out against bike lanes, and also bus lanes, not to mention the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union. So there are definitely black people who think of cyclists as not "us," or at least not "future us."

The next point in Blue's argument is to say that black people don't think of cyclists as "future us" because cycle chic marketing has associated it too strongly with upscale culture, thus white culture. Again, this seems like a stretch to me. There are plenty of things that rich white people have that black people want, like big houses and SUVs. What is stopping black people from looking at a nice bicycle, seeing something valuable and desiring it? Nothing that I can think of.

On the other hand, it couldn't hurt to market cycle chic specifically to black people. Courvoisier went from being an old white guy's booze to a trendy "urban" drink after being the subject of a rap song. It's not like the car makers aren't working in this market. If black people can't see themselves riding a bike around like Katy Perry, what about Corinne Bailey Rae? Or does she not count because she's English?

There are a lot more white people than black people among the rich, but there certainly are a number of rich black people who are treated as role models by middle-class and working-class black - and white - people. A few are gangsters, but most are athletes, entertainers and businesspeople. It probably wouldn't hurt for cycling advocates to look at the most visible of these role models, find out if they ride bikes, and whether they do it visibly. If they don't ride, why not? If they do, why not do it publicly to an event or two?

In any case, I don't think the answer is to stop marketing cycle chic, but to broaden the image of cycle chic to include black people.


Jonathan said...

It’s my observation that many bicycling advocates are extremely suspicious of mass media marketing and advertising in general. For them, the idea that a bicycle could be a glamorous accessory, like a handbag with wheels, is contrary to their core values of bicycling. Those values are based on bicycling as a transportation option that is zero-emissions, that doesn’t rely on planned obsolescence, and that helps them feel more connected to their community.

Those are important values, but as you have pointed out elsewhere, it’s sometimes helpful to focus on the ends of advocacy, not the means. If it gets people out of their cars, then it’s probably good.

Elliott @ Austin on Two Wheels said...

Totally agree with Jonathan (see my comments on Friday's story.)

I highly recommend anyone who wants to address cycling with the African American population speak with Anthony Taylor with the Major Taylor project: He is an African American cyclist and an entrepreneur who figured out how to create a fitness club chain to appeal to the African American market. He is now working in cities across America to understand the challenges and come up with strategies to open up cycling within the African American community.

He spoke in Austin this February and these were his observations:
- Yes, gentrification is a factor in resistance to cycling in established African American neighborhoods.
- More importantly, cycling is not seen as part of the African American culture and where it is seen it is a symbol of poverty (i.e., you are riding a bike because you cannot afford a car.)
- Based on his start-up experience, there is a strong interest in the African American market in health and fitness (it is the fastest growing demographic of this market.)

The first point is more complex than just the bike, but one the second one, I think cycle chic has some ability to create community appeal. If riding a bike becomes the symbol as something the wealthy and fashionable do, then it ceases to represent poverty. Instead, it becomes something to aspire to.

In the end, no amount of white, liberal hand wringing is going to get the job done. We lack community credibility. Members of the African American community must come up with a way for cycling to appeal and be accepted in the community.