From the hyperbolic tone, you'd think the companies had installed whites-only drinking fountains. But the outrage stems from something a bit more pedestrian. Black newspapers are crying discrimination because the two companies don't spend enough money with . . . black newspapers.
City News and the Akron Reporter are running the ad as part of a nationwide effort organized by Les Kimber, whose California marketing agency sells advertising for black papers. "Essentially, a group of publishers have decided to use the boycott as a marketing tool in order to eliminate what we consider economic discrimination against black newspapers," Kimber says.
He offers stark statistics to back his claim. Last year, T-Mobile spent less than $25,000 advertising in the black-owned press, but more than $160 million with "white newspapers," says Kimber. Meanwhile, Kohl's spent not one dime with minority papers, but placed more than $90 million in advertising with honky rags.
Kimber sees this as proof that the companies believe "black people don't read."
Upon closer examination, however, his civil rights struggle looks suspiciously like a shakedown.
To Kimber, it's all about the color of a paper's owner, not who actually reads it. He considers The Plain Dealer a white paper, though it reaches more than 193,000 black readers, according to the Media Audit, a national research firm. Though City News markets directly to blacks, its readership is only 47,300.
When it comes to major advertisers like Kohl's and T-Mobile, these kinds of numbers do the talking. With multimillion-dollar budgets, they're looking for large audiences and one-stop shopping. In fact, most national advertisers don't do business with small white-owned papers either.
(T-Mobile does advertise in Scene, which has a monthly readership of 340,700, 22 percent of which is black, according to the Media Audit.)
Kimber's argument also neglects a more fundamental problem with papers like City News: Black merchants are ignoring them just as much as large corporations are. City News offers a hodgepodge of wire service stories and op-eds on national issues, with the scantiest of local coverage. The issue containing Kimber's ad was filled with recipes from Cleveland "celebrities," including the peach cobbler specialty of Publisher James Crosby's wife. The cover featured Plain Dealer columnist Sam Fulwood III, posing over a strainer of broccoli.
It's not the kind of coverage that attracts readers or advertisers of any stripe. So it comes as no surprise that Crosby's biggest advertiser is Crosby himself. More than half the ads in the 20-page issue tout his other businesses, including a furniture store and a mortgage lender.
The Akron Reporter provides even less incentive for advertisers. It claims a circulation of 35,000, but it's all but invisible in Akron. There's no website, so national companies have to troll the Yellow Pages to know it even exists. A man who answered the phone refused to provide his name. Yet for the life of him, he can't understand why major corporations aren't shoveling contracts at him.
Kimber, too, proves unwilling to do the bare minimum to seek business the old-fashioned way. After he launched his boycott, T-Mobile requested circulation figures verified by an independent auditor, a standard practice in advertising. Kimber still hasn't provided them.
T-Mobile makes an unlikely Jim Crow. Last year, the company sank nearly $1.5 million into commercials on Black Entertainment Television, making it one of BET's top 35 clients. "Our advertising overall reaches African Americans more often than the percent of the population they comprise," says T-Mobile spokesman Bryan Zidar.
Still, crying racism, irrespective of its merits, has a way of making corporate America open its checkbook.
In 1994, Denny's paid $54 million to settle a lawsuit accusing the chain of providing poor service to blacks. Two years later, a company survey found that 50 percent of black people still linked Denny's with discrimination. The chain spent millions on diversity initiatives to salvage its reputation.
"What some companies do, and it's really unfortunate, is as soon as they get in a jam where people are picketing them or protesting them, then they go to the black press and say, 'Bail us out,'" says Crosby.
Yet there's a sizable difference between Denny's mistreatment of black customers and companies merely making smart advertising decisions. And ignoring this distinction can be profitable.
Earlier this year, Kimber accused Home Depot of shortchanging black newspapers. The company ponied up a $4.5 million ad buy. It was cheaper than being tagged the next Denny's.
Companies that try to resist only dig themselves in deeper. When Kimber accused Office Depot of racism three years ago, the company pointed to its long history of supporting the NAACP and the Urban League. Kimber portrayed this as the corporate equivalent of "Some of my best friends are black."
"This is further indication of your inability to admit the fact that you have spent billions of dollars in print media advertising with newspapers that are 'exclusively' white," he said in a press release.
Kimber claims that he's helping the companies he targets. "We're not asking them to give to us," he says. "We're saying, 'Utilize our publication to increase your bottom line.'"
If accusing a company of racism seems an odd sales pitch, that doesn't trouble him. "We have not reached the point where we have a level playing field," he says. "Until we do, why question the possibility of a company discriminating against African American-owned businesses?"
But it might be wise to question the profitability of false cries of racism.