Several years ago, as a college student, I attended a major hospitality industry convention.  I’ll never forget Day Two, when I walked into a breakout entitled “Marketing to Minorities”.  It was ten minutes before start time and the room was packed.  I found and settled into the last seat, located in the back of the room.

I began to look around and noticed that I was the only non-white person in the room with the exception of the presenter himself, a chubby, middle aged African American man.  In fact, the room was almost entirely full of white females, hailing from small towns across America selling everything from tours to rooms at bed & breakfast inns.

The presenter boomed, “Welcome!  Today I’m going to show you how to attract and sell to minorities.”  He began by showing population statistics, demonstrating the importance of marketing to minorities.  At this point, the attendees were engaged in vigorous note taking, eating his every word.  “You cannot sell to minorities the same way that you would white people.  You have to market to them based on their likes.” At this point, you could hear “Oohs” and “aahs” around the room along with excited head nodding.  “Now, I’m going to show you a commercial that I did for the Tennesee Department of Tourism”*.

At this point, the the lights went dim, allowing me to witness a presentation that, still today, I wish to forget.

The commercial opened with a list of attractions and fun places to visit in the state.  Next, a dark brown, middle aged, overweight African American woman came across the screen.  She wore a bright blond wig and gaudy jewelry.  As she rode jet skis across the screen, she screamed out “yay-yah” in Little John fashion.  A caption read, Aunt Hattie.

Next, Uncle Hector appeared, riding in a motor boat.  Uncle Hector was about 5’5, 250 lbs. and wore a wife beater with gold chain.  As he began to scream from exhilaration, he displayed a mouth full of gold teeth.

The commercial came to an end with a jingle.  A saxophone blared as a choir sang, “Get you a little something something in Tennessee, get your something something!”

The lights came back on.  The attendees immediately stood and began to applaud.  I wondered what planet I was on.

As my blood pressure underwent a rapid increase, the presenter opened the floor for questions.  The attendees were whispering questions and comments to each other, eager to learn how they too could attract Aunt Hatties and Uncle Hectors to their remote and, some exclusive, destinations.  After all, the industry had recently suffered a huge blow after 9/11 and the prospect of attracting new clients was exciting.

Audience members began shooting off questions, eager to learn from the obviously well-qualified speaker.  After he answered no less than fifteen questions, he announced that he had time for only one more.  I eased my hand upward.

“Yes!  My sister, what is your question?” I knew he wouldn’t refer to me as his sister for much longer.

I slowly stood.  I settled my face into a smile as sweet as apple pie.  “Yes, I have a question… Are you worried at all about the fact that you are promoting stereotypical caricatures to the people in this room?”  His eyes become wide.  “After all, your marketing suggestions are likely to alienate, if not anger many minorities.  I just spent over $300 at the hotel spa this morning.  However, if Uncle Hector and Aunt Hattie were on the brochure, I would have not only not spent a dime, I would have been amazingly offended.”

“Uh..uh…uh.”  He stood dumbfounded.  Attendees jumped up and ran over to me.  The noise of over thirty people asking me questions at once was overwhelming.  I was surrounded by well-meaning Caucasian people who were now confused and wanted to ask me more about what I deemed as appropriate marketing techniques to reach minorities.  I answered as many questions as I could, being sure to explain that there is no one way to reach black people, Hispanic people or any other culture.  The presenter managed to slip out, unnoticed.

Here are a few takeaways from this experience:

*I changed the state in this story.