Using our (consumer) power for good


As an executive at the world’s largest consumer research organization, The Nielsen Co., I spend my days surrounded by data and statistics. In addition to the well-known TV ratings, Nielsen also measures what consumers buy and what consumers watch. I continue to be amazed at how ethnicity, race, gender and age all impact consumer buying habits and trends. What amazes me even more is that most of us have no idea how powerful we as African Americans are as consumers.

Do you know your power? And Lord have mercy if you do, are you using it for good?

African-Americans bring about $87 billon dollars in buying power to the table. Not a bad place to start. Let me show you what that power looks like day-to-day:

What we buy

African-American households spend about $32.45 every time we go grocery shopping. This is less than average, but we shop more often than other groups—approximately 167 shopping trips a year vs. 156. That’s 167 opportunities to choose with care where you shop. On average, Blacks tend to spend more in dollar, convenience and military stores than we do in traditional supermarkets. How committed are your favorite stores to people of color? Do they give back to the community? If not, changing stores is an easy way to exert some power.

And how about the products you buy once you get to the store? We spend more of our income on food consumed at home; and research shows cooking from scratch is really important to us. (Well—I can cook from scratch…just not often, something that’s clearly not lost on my family. So this past Sunday I cooked both a big breakfast and a big dinner, and suddenly they wanted to “raise a shrine in my honor for the sacrifice I’d made.” (Families can be so cruel.) And since Blacks also use fewer coupons than any other demographic group, this means we’re probably more brand loyal and not afraid to spend more money on the items we love. Are the manufacturers who make these products as loyal to you? Are you buying items from companies that use people of color in their ads? Pay attention to those ads the next time you’re watching TV. And speaking of TV…

What we watch

African-Americans tend to have more TVs in our homes and we watch a lot more TV than the general population. Per week, our households watch almost 80 hours of TV a week compared to the general population, which averages about 58 hours. Are you sending up flares to the networks and cable companies that don’t have people who look like you in their program lineup? Although data has shown that Black audiences prefer comedies, we also favor football, “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars.” Perhaps that’s because these shows typically do include people who look like us.

We do like to be entertained! We listen to 25 hours of radio each week, go to the movies about seven times a year, and have a higher than average mobile Web usage. I am just going to assume that ya’ll are spending some of that time on stations that hire Black DJs, seeing movies that feature Black actors and actresses and signing up for those multiple-year phone contracts with carriers who employ a diverse staff? C’mon now, can I get an amen?

The growth numbers

With all the negative information and stats that are fed to us in the media, I want you to pay close attention to these numbers:

In the fall of 2008, there were 2.5 million Black college students. That is twice as many as 15 years earlier. Six percent of us have a graduate or professional degree, compared with only 4.9 percent in 2000. Nearly 18 percent of us have a bachelor’s degree or higher. In 2000, that number was 14.5 percent. And 81 percent of Black adults have a high school diploma. That’s up almost 10 percent since 2000. There are approximately 40 million African-Americans in the United States. As one civil rights leader so aptly explained—this is larger than many countries!

What does all of this information mean? It means that marketers and advertisers can’t afford to take us for granted. And you can’t afford to be an uneducated consumer. Because when you are informed and educated you are pure power baby! Now go forth and use your power for good.

(Cheryl Pearson-McNeil is senior vice president of public affairs and government relations for The Nielsen Co., the world’s leading market research company. For more insights go to


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