Years ago, when I first started freelance writing, I got hired to do the copy for a website for a car company that is no longer in business.
The company had noticed that they weren’t selling to women – in fact, their customer base was almost entirely older white men – and they wanted to change that. They were planning to deploy special banner ads on websites that got a lot of female traffic, and those would lead to a brand-new special splash page just for women. My assignment was to write the copy for that women’s splash page.
At first, I was excited to be a part of it. I had developed some strong likes and dislikes about the process of shopping and caring for cars, and had lots of ideas about how the company could speak to women.
…However, the company didn’t want those ideas. Well, that happens with freelance writing. No big deal. But when I asked about the focus groups that I assumed had been held, I found out that the company and its ad agency hadn’t run any of those. In fact, they didn’t seem to want any female input or thinking at all. There were women other than me involved in the project, but any suggestions were actively discouraged. We were essentially to take dictation for the company’s pre-planned concept for the site.
There was, of course, some “You go, girl!” type language, watered down to the point of meaninglessness. But mostly the whole thing was embarrassing. The finished site had very little about the actual cars, or why one might want to purchase or drive one. Instead, there were messages about the company’s sponsorship of the LPGA tour and donations to fight breast cancer. Because chicks love that stuff, right? And then they were expected to just obediently start buying.
I only worked on the splash page, but apparently if any women stayed on it long enough to try to find links to solid information about the cars, which was tough, they were treated to another page that cooed to them about “making cars simple.” You know, for women. And the banner ads – which I swear I had nothing to do with – were apparently even worse.
(As humiliating as that was, I was at least relieved that I hadn’t been involved with the splash page for African-Americans, which featured, for real, a black history timeline. It was the main visual of the site. DO YOU SEE HOW THOROUGHLY WE UNDERSTAND YOU, BLACK PEOPLE?)
The whole project was an epic disaster. Not only did women not start buying the client’s cars, but they sent scathing letters and e-mails to the company with a few choice words about condescension. I don’t have direct knowledge of the response to the black-history-timeline-with-a-car-on-it site, but I feel like I can make an educated guess.
I don’t know if the car company executives ever understood why the site was such a catastrophic failure, but as an outsider, it was easy: Instead of actually asking women and African-Americans why they didn’t want those cars or what they did want in a car or even in a car-buying experience, the company decided for itself what those groups would like and then expected female and black consumers to behave like two-dimensional stereotypes instead of thinking human beings with real concerns and desires. And they certainly didn’t expect anyone to behave as an individual – just as a monolithic group member, at most.
I repeat: That company is out of business.
I’ve been thinking about that job lately because I’ve been watching the Republican Party frantically try to re-brand itself after the election. Not re-think itself, mind you. Just re-brand itself. There doesn’t seem to be any real effort to do anything but pigeonhole the groups that didn’t vote Republican and consider giving lip service to their imagined wants.
And rest assured, it will be just lip service. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has been standing right up and saying that Republicans should stop making boneheaded, breathtakingly sexist statements about rape. But please don’t take that to mean that he thinks Republicans should stop their current push to criminalize abortion for rape victims. He just thinks the GOP should stop being quite so honest about it in public.
And so the Republican effort to win us back is progressing much like my early e-mail volleys with my one-time client. Single women just want free birth control for all the dirty sex they’re having! Latinos are single-issue voters who only care about immigration, and in only one way! Black people only want handouts! LGBT folks just have two goals: destroying American marriages and legally forcing churches to let them have sex on the altar. Yes, Republicans truly have us all figured out.
Here’s the thing, GOP: You might want to work in a couple of focus groups. You’ll note that I didn’t say “You might want to talk to people,” because you’ve been talking to people, or at least at them, quite a bit. What you need to do is run a focus group or seven and listen to people.
Find out what people in cities worry about. You may begin to suspect that their thoughts and needs are just as valid as those of people who live in rural areas. Talk to Muslims and Wiccans and Hindus and agnostics and atheists. You might find surprisingly strong moral and ethical codes, and a startlingly weak desire to murder other human beings.
Notice that Cuban-Americans and Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans (who are citizens! For real!) and many, many other groups that could be described as “Latino” do not all want or worry about the same things, even within those subgroups. Though you might be able to get away with the generalization that they’re not crazy about being treated as inherently foreign and an invading malicious horde.
Check in with a few women, single and married. Yes, lots of women (and men!) like birth control, because planning if and when one has children turns out to be a really good way to help keep those children out of poverty. But brace yourselves, Republicans, it may get even more complex than that. It may just be that the women who didn’t vote for you are not so much sex-crazed as they really, really hate being treated like unthinking baby incubators whose lives are irrelevant once the egg is fertilized – no matter what the “method of conception” may have been.
And, yes, Republicans, you’re going to have to listen to some black people who aren’t Herman Cain.
I know this will be awkward because you have been using black people as the quickest, most effective way to scare a certain type of white person into donating to your campaigns and getting out to the polls for quite some time now, but I think you will hear some things that will be good for you. And most of you have known all along that the scare-the-racist-goobers campaigning is odious. Taste the bile you’ve generated, take some time to be ashamed, and then actually do something about it. The last four years have shown that you have a stunning number of racists in your ranks, GOP, overt and covert. It’s time to do what’s right and shame them out. Let them secede and form their own party. They love that.
And I cannot freaking believe I have to type this, but no, Mitt; no, Paul; no, Newt; and no, Bill; and no to so many of you: African-Americans are not lazy people who are just looking from a handout from you noble, hardworking white fellows. They’re not even the biggest recipients of Welfare. Whoops! Turns out that’s white people. So what do they want? You’re going to have to actually ask them, a bunch of them, from all different regions and income levels. And you’re going to have to listen.
As for the LGBT community, well, Republicans, I’m sorry to say that other than a few baffling stalwarts and the many closet cases in your ranks, you’ve pretty much lost the LGBT vote for a few decades. It was probably the part when you said that there was something so fundamentally wrong with us that we shouldn’t be allowed to marry each other. Or maybe it was the part when you called those of us who did want to get married slaves to lust instead of, you know, deeply in love. Or it might be the countless times you’ve claimed to be religiously oppressed when we object to being legally discriminated against. One of those things.
But you can take a few baby steps. Learn what “LGBT” stands for, and why liberals say that instead of “homosexual.” For extra credit, ask about the Q that sometimes gets put on at the end. If you can’t talk to us directly, try talking to those younger Republicans who for some crazy reason don’t find their gay friends so scary. Ask them why, and listen. The Rick Santorum types among you really seem to enjoy taking the position of embattled victimhood, so try a few thought experiments: Think about how you would feel if someone tried to pass a law that kept you from getting married, and thus from visiting the person you wanted to marry in the hospital. If that doesn’t move you, think about such a law would affect your inheritance.
And then, Republicans, you might try talking to people without automatically slicing them into any of those categories at all. Or you might go crazy and start talking and listening to people who are in unions and people who seem awfully huffy about what fracking is doing to their drinking water and people who used to have a pension fund before that corporate takeover and liquidation. And I think you should find a bunch of other kinds of people, and I think you should listen hard.
Because as I mentioned, that car company is out of business.