Black People in an REI Commercial?

In a rare TV watching moment, I came across an even more rare REI commercial. When the commercial ended, I wondered, did I just see people of color….camping — or was it wishful thinking? Well, of course I had to find the commercial on YouTube, and after about five views, I am now about 99.3% certain a black couple came out from under that rock.

Watch and tell me what do you think.

20 Thoughts on “Black People in an REI Commercial?”

  • You seriously just made me watch this 5 times too, lol. I think you’re right. Sistergirl is definitely a sista, and I think the guy standing next to her was a brotha, lol.

  • I saw this commercial the other day. I think it’s just a general trend in advertising that when depicting a group of people they need to be mixed races. I think it has to do more with ad trends and less to do with what is actually going on in the outdoors. A better question might be how many African Americans does REI employ? I personally know one that does and she is very passionate about the outdoors–but I’m not sure if that’s typical.

    But as far as how ads effect us socially, there has been a lot of theory around how if you see yourself or identify with an ad the more likely you are to use a certain product or identify with a certain lifestyle. So if more African Americans see themselves in ads in the outdoors they may be able to actually SEE themselves IN the outdoors. There’s no doubt the negative effects of ads in this way (like the way women are “seen”), but in this case, it may be a good thing in diversifying the outdoors.

    Thanks for listening to my American Studies rant 😛

    • You are totally right Angela and making people of color visible is a big reason Outdoor Afro exists! I like REI personally, although their prices can be a little high for someone starting out. The good news is that they rent gear, so you can get the good stuff without the high price if you are not committed.

      I also agree about hiring…the REI next to where I live has very few brown faces on the floor (or maybe I do not visit at the right times to see otherwise) 🙂

      Thanks for your comment Angela!

  • About seven years ago at a conference in Scottsdale, AZ I met the then new and now current president of REI Sally Jewel . We struck up a conversation at the time that continues to this day. As she had only just taken the job she was interested getting different points of view on what she could do to make a difference. I suggested then quite candidly that REI needed to do a better job of marketing to people of color.
    I can tell you categorically that since that first meeting every catalog REI has created features at least one person from a minority group, most often African Americans. The impression is small and incidental, but not insignificant because in the past there were non at all. Could REI do more? ABSOLUTELY. But the company has at least made an effort when others have done nothing at all.

    Last month during a screening at the Banff Mountain Film Festival I sat next to the sponsored athlete manger of The North Face. We’ve been friends for a while but I took this opportunity to ask her, “Why doesn’t The North Face sponsor any African-American athletes?” The company doesn’t support single black skier, climber or trail runner.

    She replied simply, “I don’t know. I never really thought it.”

    It’s safe to say companies don’t think about such things. They operate under the assumption that customers will find them. The same goes for the athletes they support. They don’t go on scouting missions to fill the demographic slots to make a diverse pallet of customers and athletes. They open their doors and assume that anyone who chooses to enter will present themselves.

    But the reality is that people of color are under represented in marketing initiatives. So few see outdoor recreation as a pastime in which they are welcome. And companies who advertise their products on TV and in magazines will say that they don’t target people of color because on the whole few participant in the activities for which their products are designed. Round and round we go in the circle argument. Someone’s got to say enough!

    That someone has to be us. There’s nothing stopping a black skier, climber or trail runner from sending his or her resume to my friend at The North Face. She says she’d love to have a more diverse team of athletes. But no-qualified people of color come to her looking for support. She doesn’t go looking for athletes. They come to her. That’s just the nature of the business. And most ad agencies use models who’s backgrounds are consistent with the image identity of their clients. If more people of color who are models touted their outdoors experience we’d likely see more of them depicted in advertising.

    The point is there are many opportunities to fix this. If we want to see more black folks in advertising for outdoor recreation products and services though we can’t wait for it to happen. As a community we have to put ourselves out there. Why not form a go-to ad agency that specializes in black athletes? I can tell you after 20 years in this business, no one is going to take a step in our direction until we take at least two in theirs.

    • Your comment is a blog post in and of itself! Thanks for sharing the background of your discussion and advocacy for broader representation — sadly I am not surprised at the responses! The work that Frank and Audrey, Dudley, you and many others are doing can create the critical mass of interest in the outdoors. For now, I actually don’t care about what kind of gear people use — I just want them to get outside! And if more people of color (esp. black people) are visible on trails, lakes, and mountains, then we’ll see more visibility in the ads…it won’t be vice-versa I’m afraid.

  • I don’t know Rue. Ads are all about market fragmentation, and if REI puts this little ad out there with African Americans in it and they start to see a jump in response in that small segment, then they just may start marketing to just that segment. Think of all the different types of ads that are marketed to different segments of the population. (McDonalds is a great example…) So I wouldn’t be so pessimistic about it. I know you’re not about gear, but commodities do make people identify with certain lifestyles and in turn may get people out into the great Outdoors.

  • A lively discussion — thanks for your analysis!

    Not pessimistic…I just think that I (as an African American woman who loves the outdoors) and others like me have far greater influence over who shows up outdoors than REI and The North Face. Black people are not going to start hiking just to rock some cool gear!

    Once people actually get outside and it’s a part of their lifestyle, then we can start to tussle over what gear is the best, etc.

  • It’s a MACRO vs. MICRO argument. I tend to agree with Rue, I personally favor bottom-up advocacy and engagement and that should lead to increased pariticipation of our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family, etc.

    However, I’ve come to accept that the masses are waiting for someone else, a big name or marketing message, to tell them – this is cool or okay. When that happens, you suddenly see a mass of people getting on board and raging all about it.

    A perfect parallel is the Green/Eco-conscious Movement. Most people weren’t trying to recycle or buy eco-friendly products, despite the cries of “hippies’ everywhere. Now recycling, CFL light bulbs and hybrid cars are all of the rage.

    Makes me wanna shake my head, buy marketing is a very powerful thing.

  • I dunno…sometimes the message may appear to come from the marketers, but they actually get decision making data from the folks on the ground.

    Like James said based on his experience, outdoor gear marketers have no inclination to reach out on their own, unless a demand is apparent. And quantified. Don’t kid yourself to think money is eagerly thrown into big marketing campaigns for altruistic reasons. First a researched market opportunity needs to present itself ie. a captive or otherwise dedicated constituency (this is actually why fast food target marketing works Angela). Once a market need is identified, then gear makers will take notice and we’ll see different kinds of ads.

  • The fact that you are having this discussion is encouraging to me. I had resigned myself to the fact that I would be the only black face on the trails (other than my kids), but to know, not only are there others, but you guys also want to change this, gives hope.

    Personally, I believe black folk are not going to get serious about outdoor activities until black folk realize that hiking, backpacking, skiiing, etc., are not “white” activities. I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, but I know more black people who have platinum grills than backpacks or sleeping bags. I hope that this is due to my location (FL) and not a trend country wide. I know growing up in the country in NC it wasn’t that way. A lot of black kids grew up camping and hiking there, until we got to high school and it wasn’t the cool thing to do anymore. There were no rappers or sports figures hiking, so we didn’t. As my oldest kids were growing up, I wanted them to experience a lot of the things I did growing up, so I got back into outdoor activities. And this is the best way I see getting more black people outdoors…starting with children. I know not everyone has kids, but for those who do, we want our children to well rounded,which includes giving them a balanced picture of the world. Life is more than basketball and hip-hop. Showing them that there are no boundaries, racial or otherwise, to the great outdoors can be extremely effective in helping to raise balanced, healthy, kids who will challenge real boundaries they encounter in life.

    Like I said, I’m trying to stay positive, and reading the various post here help greatly. One day I won’t be the only black face I see on the trails!

  • Thanks Jay — I definitely try to elevate the conversation beyond the black vs. white framework and encourage people to get out of doors because it’s simply a good thing to do. The work we are all doing to help increase visibility of people of color is critical and will make a difference — it’s my life’s work, and I appreciate your partnership.

  • Hi Rue, I wanted to reply to your question about REI’s new TV commercial. When casting and wardrobing this spot we intentionally chose to outfit an African American couple as multi-day backpackers…the experts in the group. The main goal of our new TV campaign is to inspire people to get outside and experience activities like hiking, backpacking and camping…but we also tried to be thoughtful about portraying racial diversity so as to hopefully contribute to making the outdoors a more welcoming place for everyone. As James points out, we make an effort to do this in all our marketing materials and felt it was an important consideration as we made our first foray into TV. Thanks for the conversation about the ads – we appreciate it! Tom Vogl, VP-Marketing, REI

  • I agree that starting with the kids is a great way to get people of color out enjoying the outdoors. I volunteer with Inner City Outings (part of the Sierra Club). Last Friday, I took a group of middle school kids (Hispanic, African American & Asian American) on a hike in a local State Park. (I’m in LA.) After the hike, the kids told me that the field trip was “tight” and that they’d way rather hike than go to Disneyland!

    And one of the first people we encountered on the trail — an African American mountain biker!

  • Thanks Tom for sharing the consciousness behind the commercial. Trust me, it is appreciated, and the Outdoor Afro community looks forward to seeing more!

  • Yes Melody! It’s sometimes just a matter of exposure, true. I also think we need to reach out across generations and get the parents out too.

    Keep up the great work and thanks for your post!

  • As a data point I recall quite vividly when LLBean decided to start a depallification of their print catalog- it was striking at the time. Probably some 20 yrs on by now…

  • Bikemonkey…I had completely forgotten about LL Bean! I wonder how relevant they are now that people shop online instead of from catalogs?

  • Agreed. The woman in the middle looks mixed or Latina and the guy standing next to her with the salt and pepper beard looks Brown, at least for a moment in the commercial.

    I hear you on this! I see this often on mainstream media where women are shown playing the piano or flute; rare it is to see a woman jamming on drums or picking up a guitar.

  • Yes Adria, I was not even going to touch the “shades of blackness” topic, nosurreee! 🙂 Thanks for posting and I hope you enjoy the Bay!

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