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Toyota flashes no-go signal to use of ‘Black Press’ to thank African-American consumers

Toyota Motor Sales USA executives have angered an association of America’s preeminent African-American newspaper publishers. by Jasmyne A. Cannick
NNPA News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Toyota Motor Sales USA executives have angered an association of America’s preeminent African-American newspaper publishers, including National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) Chairman Danny Bakewell Sr., who say the troubled carmaker backed out of a multi-million dollar advertising campaign targeting African-American consumers.  

In a letter to Bakewell and the NNPA, Toyota executives said African-American consumers of Toyota products receive their advertising message from a number of media channels, which include so-called mainstream media. Bakewell and the NNPA read the statement as implying that advertising in African-American newspapers was unnecessary.

The breakdown comes after months of meetings between Toyota executives and the NNPA, a network of 200 African-American publishers – often called the Black Press – representing over 19.8 million weekly readers, approximately half of America’s African-American population.

“This is disappointing and intolerable behavior from a company (that) earned $2.2 billion from black consumers last year and was all too eager to send us their press releases asking us to write stories and editorials to influence blacks to remain loyal in their time of trouble,” said Bakewell.  

“But now that Toyota’s pain has been eased by a Federal Transportation Department and NASA report, once again the black consumer and the Black Press have been forgotten.”

Toyota makes direct pitch

Last week, a letter from James Colon, Toyota’s Vice-President of Product Communications, started arriving at the offices of NNPA publishers, including the New Tri-State Defender President and Publisher Bernal E. Smith II.

“We communicate with advertising media directly all of the time, so a communication to a variety of news media one kind or another I don’t think is unusual,” said Mike Michels, Toyota spokesperson. “The discussion with NNPA chairman and his negotiating team hasn’t had a satisfactory outcome certainly for NNPA.  And so the purpose of the communication was to express our commitment to the African-American community and to reiterate that while it’s being said that we don’t have a commitment we do indeed.  

“Long story short, we wanted the members to know our side of the story,” said Michels.

‘We’re smarter than that’

For Bakewell and NNPA execs, Toyota’s move was a breach of protocol.

“I wish him (Toyota’s Colon) good luck but I don’t think that our publishers will break rank with me, after all we’re smarter than that,” said Bakewell. “That’s what Toyota executives don’t give us credit for.  We know all too well the history of the Willie Lynch syndrome to divide and conquer.”

Peggy Hunt, publisher of the Tri-County Sentry in California said, “Mr. Colon wouldn’t and isn’t going to get us to break rank and support Toyota.

Hunt said she was in the meeting when Colon committed to a partnership with NNPA.

“For Mr. Colon to then come back to the table with a drastically different proposal offering us less than what we agreed upon while excluding prior conversations regarding an annual advertising schedule with black newspapers directed towards black consumers shows that he and Toyota are taking the Black Press for granted,” she said.

“It was very disrespectful to contact our membership directly and not go through our leadership, which he (Colon) had been in constant contact with,” said Michael House, Publisher of the Chicago Defender and Chair of the NNPA Marketing Committee.  

“For him to disregard our leadership and our chairman and try to go to our publishers directly was disrespectful in the sense that it speaks to the old ‘divide and conquer.’  Trying to reach out to our membership individually was wrong, especially after our elected leadership had already spoken for our members.”

Toyota has a long history of insulting and ignoring African Americans, said Walter Smith, publisher of the New York Beacon.

“In 1985, the Prime Minister of Japan, Yasuhiro Nakasone, said that Japan was more intelligent than countries like the United States because they didn’t have a lot of blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans.  He felt that ethnic minorities were low level and brought the intelligence quota down, an unforgivable statement. So what Toyota is doing with the NNPA is of no surprise to me.”

The root of the matter

The issue first surfaced with Toyota’s unwillingness to run “Thank you” ads in black newspapers. This was after Toyota spent millions advertising in “white” newspapers after last year’s safety recall.

 “Where is the thank you to black consumers for their support and loyalty to Toyota?  We just can’t stand by and let Toyota disrespect our people that way,” said Bakewell.

NNPA publishers took the matter to their newspapers this week.

“Toyota insulted us by putting those thank you ads in white newspapers and refusing to address black consumers in black newspapers,” said Smith.

“What Toyota is doing is reprehensible,” said Robert Bogle, publisher of the Philadelphia Tribune.  

“If it’s so easy for Toyota to dismiss the Black Press, no wonder they have no problem overlooking thanking their black consumer base.”

This was the second time that African-American newspapers and African-American consumers were not included in Toyota’s advertising campaign, the first being Toyota’s immediate response to its sticky gas pedal defect, which resulted in full page newspaper ads in white newspapers in 25 cities.

According to research from leading automotive marketing research firm R.L. Polk & Company, African-American consumers represent almost 10 percent of Toyota’s American market share, 15 out of every 100 African-American consumers purchase a Toyota.

Earlier this year, Toyoda, Toyota’s president and CEO, said, “Everyone at Toyota will continuously maintain a sense of gratitude to customers…”

Said Bakewell: “Based on Toyota’s actions, it appears that Mr. Toyoda’s statement applies to everyone but the black consumer.”

By the numbers

Toyota spends $1.6 billion annually advertising in America of which $20 million is spent in total in African-American media, including radio, print, television and digital advertising. Bakewell points out that the media Toyota uses to reach African Americans is not always African-American owned even though Toyota claims to spend $20 million with media owned by African Americans.

Burrell Communications, Toyota’s advertising agency of record for the African-American market, has repeatedly said that Toyota’s commitment to diversity is reflected in its partnerships with many highly respected minority organizations throughout the country.

Calls to Burrell’s Co-CEO, Fay Ferguson, had not been returned by press time. In his letter to NNPA’s publishers, Toyota’s Colon said that through partnerships with African-American organizations Toyota has demonstrated its commitment to African Americans.

With his point of reference being the $2.2 billion African Americans spent as Toyota consumers, Bakewell issued a challenge to Toyota regarding the amount of money the company spends with national African-American civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, Rainbow PUSH, National Action Network, National Urban League, UNCF, NCNW and others. A good start for Toyota would be to give each of the organizations $3 million, annually, he said.  

“They do the business of defending and enhancing the quality of life for African Americans and our communities and they shouldn’t have to do that on a shoestring budget,” he said.

Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said, “The NAACP supports Chairman Bakewell and the NNPA.  We hope Toyota will see the value in partnering with the Black Press every year. They are our most trusted publications.”

Next moves

Bakewell plans to call on the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus to request hearings regarding Toyota’s relationship and business practices with the African-American community.

“And we will attempt to get a meeting with Toyota’s chairman,” said Bakewell, “including going to Japan if necessary.

African-American newspapers are the gatekeepers for reaching African-American people, said Bakewell.  

“Ford and GM understand that, as do other corporations like AT&T and Wells Fargo. When corporations want and need to reach the African-American consumer they see black newspapers as the vehicle through which to reach black people. Toyota needs to stop trivializing the power the of the Black Press and understand that all we want is for Toyota to give black people the same kind of respect and reciprocity that they give their white consumers.”

Bakewell, noting that he was not alone, said there would be no relenting until “Toyota does right by our people.”

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