Changing the Narrative on Race in America Through Advertising

– Don Perry, CEO, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion

One day after President Obama gave the keynote address at SXSW Interactive, a brave team at Mullen Lowe US, led by Erin Swenson Gorrall (@ErinSSSS), VP – Group Strategy Director in the firm’s Boston office, convened a panel to discuss one of the most pressing issues of our time (again!) entitled “If You Are In Advertising, You May Be A Racist.”  She was joined by Louie Moses (@Moses_HQ), President and Creative Director of independent agency Moses, Inc.; Arwa Mahdawi (@ArwaM), President of the wickedly satirical website Rent-a-Minority; Thomas Allen Harris (@ObaOxum), President, and Don Perry ( @DDFRtv), CEO, of Digital Diaspora Family Reunion, an innovative transmedia community engagement platform.


Erin started the conversation with the observation that human beings share 99.9% the same DNA, meaning that the idea of “race” as it has traditionally been used is patently wrong. So, if we are basically all the same… Is what we are doing separating us from each other – under the name of business, creativity, insight, and targeting? And more importantly we ask ourselves – what could we do better, what could we change?

No panel could possibly solve the issue of advertising’s complicity in the creation of the racial divide, especially given only a single hour, but the panelists did offer refreshing ways to begin the serious dialogue that is needed in each agency, within the culture itself and, especially, with our selves. If we can see ourselves in “The Other,” see that they are just like us on so many levels, respect their humanity and our own, then we can begin to find pathways for reconciliation that offer us all a better present and future. Louie Moses commented that behavioral science has proven beyond any doubt that human beings all share equally the same basic emotions. “If we can use emotional responses to build better messaging, sell more stuff, make the clients more money, without resorting to the simplicity of race, why should it continue to matter?”



Thomas Allen Harris said that we need to transform our frustrations into creativity, since our role as creative agents is to find innovative solutions to problems.

Don Perry remarked that DDFR was created to make a safe space within the public sphere to foster a deeper level of connection between people that would illuminate our shared values and experiences and make for a more empathetic and inclusive culture.

Arwa Mahdawi emphasized that diverse hiring was critical, since diverse agencies make for more diverse ideas and that made for better client service.

The panel received great coverage! Kristina Monllos (@kristinamonllos) staff writer for industry mainstay Adweek, noted: The panelists agreed that—without creating a culture where employees within agencies feel comfortable addressing issues around race and racism—those agencies will continue to have diversity issues and create work that is steeped in and furthers stereotypes.

Meanwhile, at Campaign, a digital mag aimed at advertising creatives, writer I-Hsien Sherwood (@ihsiensherwood)  began his coverage by stating: “…The intimate group didn’t shy away from tackling tough topics, perhaps best exemplified by the panel’s provocative title, “If You Are in Advertising, You May Be a Racist.”

In wrapping up, all the panelists agreed that this was only one step, but an important one, in the conversation that needs to be had across the advertising industry and the culture at large. Most importantly, being respectful of each other and avoiding unnecessary antagonism are key must haves for a fruitful and honest dialogue.


Thomas Allen Harris, Don Perry (seated), Louis Moses, Erin Swenson Gorrall, Arwa Mahdawi (seated)

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