Dog Whistle Marketing

“Calling all racists!”… is a phrase that you would likely never find on a 2017 meeting notice for a white supremacist rally.  So, how are people who espouse racist beliefs able to find one another?  Through underground online-only channels? No: by using the right language.

This is a simple, yet fancy tool referred to as ‘Dog Whistling’ or ‘Dog Whistle Politics’.

Dog whistles are inaudible to humans, but they can be heard by dogs. Same for coded language used to attract its desired target while, in some cases, unknowingly offending others.  (Re: the example above, if you identify as or resemble a person of color, you may want to stay away from anything claiming to be an ‘Alt-Right’ or ‘Nationalist’ organization.  They don’t like you very much.)

Coded language is not only used in politics, but in marketing, too.  The instances aren’t always as extreme as the example given.  Sometimes it’s used to subtly communicate to a particular demographic, like the use of terms like ‘edge control’ in the Black hair care space (it refers to taming the typically shorter, harder to manage hair found along the hairline).

And, it can also be used by consumers of something that may be seen as less ‘mainstream’, or a vice.  Skin bleaching, for instance, is a practice that has a conflicted place in the beauty aisles of a number of countries with melaninated populations and European colonial history.  Their packages may not outright say for skin bleaching, but people who know what to search for know to look for key phrases like “for skin brightening” or to “achieve even tone”.

Consider the illicit drug trade. Nobody stands on a corner with a sign that says ‘heroin for sale’, but from the grittiest city block to the toniest suburb, the raging opiate epidemic shows that drug users clearly know how to find their fix.  If, for some reason, a stranger furtively approaches you on a corner asking if you ‘party’, you may be confused, but they’re probably not asking you if you enjoy doing the Electric Slide.

While these are, in some cases, extreme examples, at the end of the day, they speak to the power of targeted language to cut through clutter.  Understanding your consumer to the point where you can literally speak their language, can help you strike the right frequency and connect with people who ‘get it’ unbeknownst to the people who don’t.

What whistles have you responded to?  …do you even know? 😉

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