I’m sure we’ve all seen brands using words and phrases that just sound awkward.
The messaging feels awkward because it is using language stolen from communities these brands often do not represent.
Language variation is important to the development of a diverse society. By definition, language is a means by which individuals locate themselves in a social space. Speech is an act of ones identity and when we speak, we identify ourselves as belonging to a particular group whether that be gender, social class, or race.
For centuries, the language of Black Americans has been criticized and judged, but at the same time, that language has been stolen and used performatively in advertisements, movies and other areas of pop culture to collect a profit. That language is called African American Vernacular English or AAVE.
AAVE was developed through the process of second language acquisition. Slaves, who were stolen from different parts of Africa and the Carribean spoke different languages and they had limited access to English grammatical models, so they created words and phrases based on what they heard.
This legitimate language has been used for centuries, but instead of giving it the credit it deserves, it is often just labeled as internet slang, and because of this, major corporations and brands feel like it is theirs to claim.
Social media influencer Brittany Broski, better known as kombucha girl, faced backlash after claiming phrases like “lit”, “slay” and “chile” were internet or stan culture.
Chile, was she wrong and the internet was quick to collect her and give her a history lesson on the relevance Black communities have had on culture including the internet.
Back to our history lesson, mainstream American culture continued to appropriate Black culture and language after slavery was abolished. There was added social status if you were the type of white person who knew words used by Black people.
The appropriation has been so powerful that some of these words are apart of everyday English and American culture.
Did you know phrases like “my bad”, “back in the day” , “say what?” , “nitty gritty”, “lame”, “it’s all good”, “main squeeze”, and “this is how we roll” are just some of the many phrases created by Black people?
Now this issue of co-opting Black language is only part of the problem. When Black people use AAVE, they are often seen as illiterate in social situations, but when white people and major brands use it, it’s seen as edgy and cool.
It's quite simple. Taking the language of Black people and mixing it into mainstream media for profit is a form of systematic oppression. It’s too risky for Black people to use their own language sometimes, but brands steal it to keep making making money.
It's clear that brands are very interested in the Black dollar. Sprite's “obey your thirst” advertisement with Black athletes increased sales inside and outside the Black community.
Instead of stealing language and using Black celebrities as props to gain the money of an audience they probably don’t really care about, brands should authentically engage with the Black community.
Now more than ever, people are calling on brands to be bold and stand against racial injustice, but the performative activism was loud and boy was it wrong.
If brands want to actually reach Black consumers, they have to actually care.
First stolen land, then stolen people and now stolen language. It’s time for brands to stop stealing what they couldn’t come up with themselves.
Instead, they should work with influencers in the Black community to produce authentic advertisements and not ones that are a mockery of history.
They should make sure they are actually helping Black communities that have been oppressed systematically for centuries.
It's time for these brands to start being a solution to the problem instead of being a part of it, and it’s time for these major brands and advertising agencies to sprinkle some diversity in their rooms so that they can produce ideas that authentically reach the Black community.
And that's that on that.