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When I Say Hip Hop, You Say Hatchback

Posted by Francie Latour  November 14, 2011 11:05 AM

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Memo to the makers of the Toyota Prius: Somebody over there might want to pick up their iPhone, call Kanye West and get him an eco-dope ride to go with his limited-edition Mercedes McLaren.

I realize that a slanted-box hatchback might not look dope sitting on your factory floor or in a Google exec's three-bay garage. But it would if you could manage to get Kanye or Dwyane Wade behind the wheel of one. Unfortunately for the planet, the economy and your bottom line, that seems to be a very big 'if.'

A new report suggests that, despite lagging sales and a demographic that is ripe for the picking, hybrid automakers haven't figured out how to court their biggest
potential customers: African Americans. The reasons why aren't entirely clear. But as ad agencies, culture critics and the auto industry ponder the same question  -- Why don't more black people drive green? -- the abounding theories about looks, street cred and psychological self-esteem seem incomplete at best and downright ignorant at worst.

According to the report by consumer research firm Mintel, about 12 percent of black drivers in the US own a hybrid or electric car. That sounds surprising, but not as surprising as this: A whopping 36 percent are very keen to make a green car their next vehicle purchase, and 26 percent are unsure (read: open) about what to choose for that next purchase.

More surprises: The research showed black Americans were also the most willing to spend an additional $3,000-$5,000 to buy a hybrid vehicle. And in a figure that speaks to the psychology around people, culture and cars, blacks were highest in saying they would feel proud to own a green ride.

chadochocincoandhisprius.jpg

New England Patriots wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, proud Prius owner.



"Most believe the profile of the hybrid vehicle owner is a person between the ages of 35-55, with a household income over $75,000 and a college education or higher," Mintel said in a statement. "While this may be the current owner, the biggest potential in the market is with black consumers."

I don't know much about automotive trends. But in this hip-hop infused age, it doesn't seem like it would be that big of a leap for green automakers to get things going by enlisting the help of, say, Usher or Erykah Badu in a viral ad campaign. In May, Kanye West ignited the hip hop blogosphere when he rolled up to a charity benefit in a Mercedes McLaren SLR Stirling Moss. That could have been a car with a battery in it. Toyota has an especially captive consumer audience: They already lead all other automotive brands in purchases of new vehicles by African Americans.

It doesn't seem like a big leap -- but apparently it is. Why? Because getting the marketing minds at Toyota to switch creative gears means getting them to step out of the last century and into the current one.

"I don't want to use the word 'ignorant,' but the messages that a lot of companies still get about us are very stereotyped and very broad," said Craig Brimm, founder of the blog KissMyBlackAds.com and associate creative director at the Austin, Texas-based advertising firm Sanders Wingo. "Even though there's a black man in the White House, even though many black communities are connecting with a holistic lifestyle, even though black Americans can be found anywhere doing almost anything, people don't see us in all our diversity."

In the case of the Prius, it could be argued that until recently, the brand did not see black people at all. The tone-deaf marketing was on full display when Toyota unveiled its high-concept "Harmony" commercial for the 2010 Prius. Epic in scale, the ad painted a sweeping human landscape with thousands of costumed extras coming to life in synchronized formations, like floating human clouds and undulating fields of grass.

Ah, people make the world. Great message, right? The only problem is, despite a large and surging non-white population in the US, there wasn't a single visible brown face to be found in Toyota's blooming utopia. It's kind of creepy.

Corporations aren't the only ones stuck in stereotype, though. Black folks do it, too. Recently, a lifestyle blogger at the Atlanta Post, an African-American publication, offered this bold, equally creepy perspective: "Unfortunately for vehicles like the Prius, The Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, the overall design doesn't seem to denote high strength and high self-esteem." Translation: Black people need flashy, gas-guzzling cars so they can feel like they're somebody.

How does Brimm know that's wrongheaded? Because if there's one law of black consumer culture, it's that it can take any product -- no matter what it looks like -- and infuse it with cool. "I mean, you've got black kids wearing moccasins now. The moccasin was a funny-looking shoe. Now it's a cool shoe," Brimm said. "Same thing with the plain oversized ultra white T-shirt. At some point someone said, 'This shirt costs $1, but I can rock it.' The same thing could happen with a Prius." 

Recently, Toyota has begun making inroads. In February, the company debuted "Rental Car," a commercial in which a bougie and skeptical urban black couple are won over by the rented Prius they take on a road trip to a college reunion.

Some Prius lovers have bolder ideas -- like Prius Gang or Die, for example. The viral phenomenon was born in Boston, inspired by none other than New England Patriots player Chad Ochocinco. No. 85 is not only the proud owner of a Prius, but also proud of how slowly he drives it.

priusgangordie.jpg

Logo for Ochocinco's viral phenomenon Prius Gang or Die.



You want a vision of pie-in-the-sky harmony? Prius Gang or Die aims to unite warring New York and New England sports
fans through the peaceful driving experience that is the Toyota Prius., It's currently at 1,937 Twitter followers and counting.

Ochocinco isn't a compensated spokesman; he just loves his whip. But that doesn't mean Toyota can't learn something from his one-man campaign. "@FloydMayweather Bruh where you at?" he tweeted this summer to the blingy boxing champion. "You got to get one of these Toyota Prius's."

   



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About the author

Francie Latour writes about race, gender, ethnicity, and cultural identity. She’s written about everything from working-mom guilt to black Barbies as a contributor to The Boston Globe, where she worked for 11 years as an investigative reporter and features writer. More »

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