A few weeks into my gig at a famous vodka company that shall remain nameless, I was finally beginning to learn the language. I had learned that it was good to use the words "luxury," "authenticity," and "aspirational," especially when describing your own work. It was bad to use the words "Jello shot," "cheap," and "drunk." You weren’t drunk from doing too many cheap Jello shots, you were savoring the value-priced edible cocktails.
Whenever the topic of “urban” marketing came up, everyone seemed suddenly uncomfortable. Voices shifted upwards in pitch and speech became more deliberate. I had no idea why everyone was so nervous about selling vodka in cities.
One day, in a Power Point presentation, it all became clear. With our “urban marketing approach,” we were still supposed to “align ourselves with luxury brands” to make our famous vodka seem more expensive and exclusive. Therefore putting the bottle next to a $5,000 strand of Mikimoto earrings would create that illusion despite the fact that our vodka was available at any liquor store for $35.
The next slide showed a Blair Underwood lookalike in an expensive suit, drinking a martini in his loft apartment. Again I could hear in my boss’s voice that same tentative, apologetic quality that came up whenever we discussed “the urban market.” The kind of voice people use to talk about something unpleasant that you’d rather not bring up, like gay bashing or slavery.
“Let’s make this very clear,” he said. “We market to the elite urban consumer, not just any urban consumer.”
Everyone nodded in approval. The next slide showed several light-skinned Black women in a restaurant, drinking cosmos over brunch.
Holy shit! Urban meant Black! Or people of color anyway; one of the women on the brunch slide looked kind of Dominican. I was in a room of all white people, and my boss was saying that we didn’t want just any Black people to drink our vodka. It had to be the right kind of Black people. The kind that seemed not to be a threat.
The next slide showed P Diddy in front of a Ciroc step and repeat.
“Just look at Puff Daddy and Ciroc,” said my boss. “That is so unluxury.”
A murmur of derision went around the room as my colleagues expressed their disdain towards Diddy.
As a white woman, I was more than uncomfortable with this setting. It was a world I tried my hardest to be a chameleon but eventually became exhausted by the limited exposure these people had the nerve to be marketing to in addition to my mandatory weekly hair and makeup appointments trying to get me to fit in. I finally quit after a consultation with their stylist who said to me, “I see you wear big earrings, they bring attention up here.” She waved her hand around my face, insinuating there was something wrong with it. Continuing she said, “But what I’d like you to do is start wearing larger necklaces to bring the focus to your best feature.” She then gestured to my bosom.
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