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A world of white people: Some gift catalogs lack diversity

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 17, 2008 - It has been the quintessential mail order company for generations of consumers. Known for its quirky knick-knacks and handy-dandy household items, Miles Kimball made its name -- and its fortune -- by offering everything from mouthwash decanters to pineapple slicers to a public hungry for gizmos and gadgets.

On its website, the Oshkosh, Wis.-based business touts itself as "a leader in the direct marketing catalog industry" for more than seven decades. It says on its website that each year, it mails out an astounding 75 million catalogs. Thousands make their way into homes throughout the St. Louis area.

It is a company that appears to be the very definition of the great American success story.

But it is a company, too, with a troubling problem.

The same business that prides itself in the diversity of its product line remains curiously less diverse when it comes to its marketing.

At a time when the world is embracing its differences, Miles Kimball seems to be showcasing its sameness. Page after page, its catalogs offer a sterile similarity in their photographs -- white hands, white feet, white earlobes, white faces.

It is not simply a case of people of color being given token representation on the catalogs' pages. They are not represented at all.

A recent 84-page summer catalog had no people of color on any of its pages. Faces, arms, hands and feet appeared in more than 80 photographs, often demonstrating a Miles Kimball product. All were of whites.

A 56-page Miles Kimball "Holiday Preview 2008" catalog similarly had no people of color represented. Of the 84 photos using a model to demonstrate a product, every model appeared to be white.

"I hope it's not intentional; I hope it's just really poor marketing," said Kristy Tucciarone, an assistant teaching professor of media studies/advertising at the University of Missouri at St. Louis "I really want to give them more credit, knowing that 30 percent of Americans today are people of color."

Tucciarone said she recently received a catalog from the company and found the omission of people of color from its catalogs so "off-putting" that she has decided not to buy its products any more.

James E. Fisher, an associate professor of marketing at Saint Louis University, says he too can't imagine that the company's decision to ignore black models in its catalogs is a case of deliberate racism. "Some companies are a little more traditional, a little more risk averse," he said.

He also said it may be a case where the company is so focused on showcasing its products that the models in the photographs have become an afterthought.

Two weeks ago, an emailed request to Miles Kimball requesting an explanation for its catalog content, received the following response:

"Thank you for your recent e-mail. We apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused you. We have forwarded your comments onto the appropriate department. If we can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us."

A second e-mail inquiry elicited an identical response.

Miles Kimball is not alone in what appears to be its exclusive use of white models in its catalogs.

Carol Wright Gifts, a mail-order company based in Edison, N.J., that specializes in women's clothing and a variety of gift items, also appears to use no people of color in its catalogs. A check of several recent Carol Wright catalogs and its website also shows only white models in its advertising and marketing photography.

A recent 64-page catalog mailed by that company had nearly 150 individual ads for products that made use of models. All appeared to be white.

E-mailed requests for information from Carol Wright Gifts received a single e-mail which read:

"Dear Customer,

"I have forward (sic) your e-mail to our Marketing Department. They are in charge of the catalogs and advertisements."

Sheila-Anne

Customer Service

No other response was forthcoming.

Harriet Carter, another well-known national mail-order catalog, similarly seems to avoid using people of color as models. In a recent Harriet Carter fall catalog, the North Wales, Pa.-based company pictures models more than 100 times in its 104 pages. None appear to be persons of color.

A question about models used by the catalog received the following response:

Thank you for your E-mail.

We are sorry but we do not pick the models for our catalog. This is done by a outside advertising department. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Customer Service

Harriet Carter Gifts

In a year when an African-American has become the nation's first presidential nominee of a major political party, the omission seems unusual.

The use of African-Americans and others of color in advertising and marketing in mainstream, general circulation magazines and catalogs has been slow to take hold, even during periods of significant progress in race relations and racial tolerance.

Twenty years ago, the Post-Dispatch published a series of articles called "A Community Divided," which dealt with a broad range of issues pertaining to race.

One part of that series looked at the use of black and white models in advertising in a variety of local and national publications, including People magazine, TIME, Esquire and Seventeen. As might be expected, models in the ads were overwhelmingly white (91.5 percent). Ads that showed blacks exclusively amounted to less than 2 percent of all the ads, while mixed black and white ads accounted for just under 7 percent.

A recent check of some of the same publications showed marked changes in some, with almost no changes in others. A survey of five issues of TIME magazine in the summer of 1988 showed that nearly 9 in 10 ads depicted whites only. A similar survey this year showed that figure had dipped to just more than 6 in 10.

Similarly, People magazine which had 9 in 10 all-white ads in 1988 saw a similar drop, to just more than 6 in 10 in 2008.

Esquire magazine, on the other hand, saw little change between the two periods, with both 1988 and 2008 showing more than 9 in 10 ads all white.

Despite the records of some catalogs in not using minorities in their ads, a check of other mail-order catalogs showed more inclusiveness.

A fall 2008 Lillian Vernon catalog "Featuring Lilly's Kids," has numerous examples of models who appear to be either African-American or other racial minorities.

Similar examples can be found in the pages of Old Pueblo Traders and Bedford Fair, women's clothing catalogs.

Fisher with Saint Louis University said "there are companies that vary in their degree of sophistication. It runs the gamut from the L.L. Bean to mom and pop shops that have a good mailing list, but aren't thinking about growing their business and tapping new markets."

Tucciarone with UMSL said she cannot understand how people working in the marketing areas of exclusively white or nearly exclusively white catalogs are not pushing for greater diversity.

"Asians, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans. . . I don't know why you would not want to tap into that market. If I were their marketing person, I would say, 'You need to change this quickly.'

"They are potentially missing a huge segment of the population that could be bringing in sales."

She also said the companies "need to look at the big picture and how their lack of minorities in their ads affect the world view of minorities.

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