Guy Primus is what the Reverend Al would call one smart Negro. Elegant in his powder-gray suit and meticulous quarter-inch trim, the handsome young exec can whip through a PowerPoint presentation with the assurance of an Ivy League prof. He boasts two degrees from Georgia Tech. A Harvard MBA. Even his marketing company had a smart name: Urban I.Q. That is, until it was acquired eight months ago by hip-hop impresario Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. Now Primus tracks the buying habits of urban (don't say black) consumers and devises strategies for placing products in hip-hop videos as vice president of P. Diddy's own marketing joint, Blue (don't say black) Flame. The Reverend Al is not impressed.
"Y'all are not the first smart Negroes in America," Sharpton reminds the African-American professionals nibbling muffins and sipping orange juice during a breakfast presentation last Thursday at the Impact Marketing Retreat on South Beach. His two-tone ducktail and shiny suit clash with the understated panache of his listeners. "Y'all are the first blacks that had the option to enjoy this status."
The Rev is in town to protest the overturned convictions of police officers accused of aiding in the torture of Abner Louima while the recent Miami transplant was in NYPD custody. But before he takes on police brutality he's got to set urban marketers straight.
Sharpton believes a whole generation has come down with cultural amnesia, giving up on a civil-rights struggle that is far from won. "It's easier to condemn your fathers and deny the problem," he scolds, "because otherwise, you might have to continue the fight your fathers started." To prove his point, Sharpton reels off a series of current statistics showing gross disparities between U.S. blacks and whites in income, unemployment, and incarceration. Then he brings his sermon home to the promised land of the urban marketer: music. "I told Michael Jackson, Sony's marketing department did not make you a star,'" he recounts, testifyin' like the preacher/entertainer that he is. "You not the first Negro that could dance. James Brown could dance. Jackie Wilson could dance. They did not have the Negro options to expose their talents. It was those that marched in Mississippi, that went to jail in Birmingham, that made it possible to market Michael Jackson.'"
The audience responds with "Amen!" and "That's right!" Yet the rest of the retreat is less concerned with civil rights than with corporate snubs by the likes of Cadillac and Timberland, companies that refuse to underwrite their urban consumer base with ad dollars. The solution, everyone agrees, is to "refine your pitch." Forget about race and cut to the psychographic. "Urban is not a black kid who wears Timberland all the time," insists an Adidas marketer. "I show them skate kids. You take out the color. It's about common interests." Applause greets a braided woman in the audience who adds passionately: "You're not trying to sell all black people. You've got to stop making yourself this great big black monolith."
A conference organizer even manages to scramble Sharpton's speech into an endorsement of urban marketing: "Just like Reverend Sharpton said, Michael Jackson wasn't the first Negro that could dance; he could dance in places James Brown couldn't --" he stumbles, "-- because he understood the dynamics of the market and he could take other platforms."
So much for Birmingham. All MLK, Jr., needed was a better marketing plan.
Enter Guy Primus with his Friday-morning breakfast session, "The Music is the Message: The Marketing Power of Urban Testimonials." Primus delivers a list of the top ten hip-hop marketing events to demonstrate "how you can increase the impact of your brand through music." He begins with an honorable mention for Busta Rhymes' new single, "Pass the Courvoisier." It's too soon to gauge just how much cognac Busta will move, but Primus is excited: "It has the brand in the title of the song! It makes the bottle a character in the video!" And best of all, the first product placed is Primus's boss, P. Diddy, silhouetted in the opening shot.
Primus ranks Run-D.M.C.'s "My Adidas" as the number-one hip-hop marketing event, the song that started it all. But the mantle of best hip-hop artist belongs to the Notorious B.I.G., whose DKNY-, Versace-, BMW-, Lexus-hyping hit "Hypnotize" Primus ranks marketing event number seven. "Biggie may be the most powerful voice in hip-hop ever," Primus contends, "and he mentions nine brands! The video crystallized an aspirational lifestyle that had been brewing for a long time."
Does it bother Primus that fewer and fewer African Americans can afford the products he's paying hip-hop artists to pitch? "Sure I care," he says. But presenting people with unattainable goods is not all bad. "Not everyone can afford a Lexus," he points out. "But people can afford a quality skin-care product. There is always an aspect of hope." And the political role hip-hop played once upon a time? He shrugs: "This is what pays the bills." Like Biggie's song says: That's why they're broke and you're so paid.
Besides, Primus wasn't in the room when Reverend Al revealed, "My fear is that many of you are mortgaging the future of your brothers and sisters in the name of I-wannabe-a-vice-president-of-a-big-marketing-company."