When AAVE Becomes an Agent of Consumer Marketing

When AAVE Becomes an Agent of Consumer Marketing: The Pitfalls of Cultural Appropriation In Marketing


Paper advertisements and word of mouth were once premier forms of marketing, but in the age of social media, a dance challenge on TikTok or a hashtag on Twitter can serve as powerful marketing tools.


Marketing, as a method where companies promote their products to prospective customers, is consumer-oriented by nature. This means that the current trends and demands of the consumer will be considered, and often used, in the promotion of a particular product. Thanks to the swiftness of the digital age, anything that has gone viral will likely be co-opted or mirrored in an effort to promote products in a way that is relatable. Companies like Wendy’s have even gone as far as creating social media accounts that allow them to directly interact with consumers. Through witty banter and a distinct online presence, these brands gain a steady footing with one of the market’s largest groups of consumers– Generation Z. 


But the generation with a spending power upward of $140 billion has done more than reshape the scope of consumer marketing. Some of Gen Z’s most influential members have often amassed such coveted brand campaigns and large followings through another profitable market—cultural appropriation. The fact of the matter is, much of the so-called “Gen Z Slang” that floods Twitter, the video concepts that populate TikTok, and the fashion trends on Instagram often start with creators of color, mainly Black ones.


The co-opting of Black culture and Black aesthetics is nothing new, as public figures such as the Kardashian-Jenner family have been doing so for years. Influencers can even amass profit from the backlash of engaging in cultural appropriation. When journalist Wanna Thompson coined the term “Blackfishing” in 2018, she was referring to white women who cosplayed as Black women. Blackfishing in 2022 can certainly look like adopting a Black or racially ambiguous look in order to gain followers, but it can also look like the exclusive use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to interact with other users on social media. Within the context of consumer marketing, the large presence of cultural appropriation on the Internet and within spaces dominated by Gen Z is often reflected through how companies promote their offerings. 


Gen Z, under the guise of diversity, personality and social consciousness, often operates on the cusp of a double-edged sword. On one hand, Gen Zers require that the brands they support are transparent, accountable and inclusive of all sexualities, gender identities, and ethnic backgrounds. On the other hand, the desire to engage with various trends and experiment with self-expression often leads to an oversight of cultural appropriation. Rather than recognizing distinct aspects of Black culture as Black, it gets filtered through TikTok hashtags and mislabeled as a “Gen Z Trends.” Even the long-running comedy sketch show “Saturday Night Live” fell victim to this oversight; in their “Gen Z Hospital” segment, the so-called “Gen Z Slang” was regarded as being cringey, but its gross misuse occurred less because of “badly written jokes” and more because of the many terms that were actually misappropriated AAVE. 


In turn, it’s no surprise that companies risk cultural appropriation when attempting to use consumer trends and data that will personalize the experience they’re offering. Emulating another imitation produces inauthentic content while portraying the idea that one’s culture—in this case, Black culture—is nothing more than a costume and profit margin. However, it’s still possible to create culturally and socially relevant marketing strategies while avoiding cultural appropriation in marketing. 


Ultimately, it starts with being cognizant not only of one’s audience, but of the audience that the targeted demographic interacts with. Understanding the root of a trend means more than simply placing a TikTok creator’s username in the bylines, it also includes understanding the cultural context of the trend, along with potential implications if that trend is mirrored to promote a certain product or offering.


Even more important is the need to understand that participating in certain trends does not equal authenticity. Campaigns, tweets, and general content production must reach far beyond the surface level of a product’s use or a brand’s purpose in order to appear relatable. It’s known that all publicity is good publicity, but interactions with a misguided tweet ultimately do not equal an increase in sales. 


The best thing that an individual or brand can do to avoid the pitfalls of cultural appropriation marketing, especially when appealing to Gen Z, is to recognize that popularity isn’t always built on ethics or longevity. Trends come and go, but the Internet is forever and loyalty can be easily revoked—don’t get caught in the pitfalls of cultural appropriation marketing for the sake of a retweet.  


Cory Utsey (she/her/) is a writer and a student at Howard University. As a journalism major and philosophy minor, her interests range from social justice and equity to culture and entertainment. Through her work, she aims to uplift the voices, stories, and experiences of underserved communities.


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