In business, pictures say a thousand words

February 03, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

1/8 TC Lands' End, a catalog mail order business based in Dodgeville, Wis., is far and away my favorite place to shop. The prices are reasonable. The clothes are well-made. The service is excellent. Next time you pass me on the street, look me over. Odds are, most of what I am wearing either came from Lands' End or was a gift.

But one thing used to bother me about Lands' End: They never, ever seemed to use people of color in their catalogs. This made me feel like an interloper; as though the company's quality merchandise and fast, friendly service really was not intended for the likes of me.

As years passed, the absence of minorities of any sort began to grate, for it seems impossible to me -- then and now -- that a business could depict a world without blacks, Asians, or Hispanics except by a deliberate intent to exclude.

Finally, about a decade ago, I wrote the company and expressed my concerns. Lands' End acknowledged my letter quickly, said they were sorry and, about six months later, included a black model in one of their catalogs. Today, black models appear throughout every issue -- though Asians, Hispanics and other ethnic minorities remain rare.

But what if Lands' End had ignored me? Worse, what if they had tried to defend their practice of excluding minorities by using arguments so specious as to be insulting?

I doubt I would have taken the company to court. But I certainly would have felt compelled to take my business elsewhere -- and the fact is, such a step would have hurt me as much as it hurt them. No other clothier has proven as dependable for me as Lands' End.

I thought of this experience recently when Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., sued two Maryland retirement homes for failing to use black models in their printed advertisements.

The suits accuse the two companies of sending a message of "racial preference" for whites by running ads with photographs that included few if any blacks. Also named in the suits are the newspaper publishing companies that ran the ads. Baltimore Neighborhoods is seeking $2 million in damages and an order requiring the companies to use blacks in their ads in proportion to the black population in the area where the ads run.

"The appearance of whites, exclusively, sends a very clear message to blacks that they are not welcome," says Martin Dyer, associate director of the non-profit, fair housing advocacy group. "We contend that it is no accident. Ads are very carefully selected to target specific groups and send specific messages."

Notes Mr. Dyer, "Legally, morally, and ethically -- it is very, very wrong to discriminate against certain people because of the color of their skin. Discrimination is at the core of a lot of the things that are wrong in this society."

I agree. Discrimination is like a cancer, sapping both the financial and the spiritual health of communities as well as individuals.

Both homes, College Manor in Lutherville and Peninsula United Methodist Homes in Chestertown, claim that black models were left out of ads by happenstance, not to discourage black customers.

"I guess the answer is, we were really running the ads to reflect what's in the place, and we have not had many black residents," explains the Rev. Richard C. Stazesky, president and chief executive officer of Peninsula. "But we welcome black residents. We want black residents."

But blacks are not fools and, fortunately, neither are judges. Advertising material is not slapped together willy-nilly. Businesses make deliberate decisions about which customers they prefer and those they do not.

Thus, I do not believe that any advertiser, even Lands' End, omits blacks and other minorities by accident. For many people, minorities remain as invisible as Ralph Ellison's fictional "invisible man." And this blindness is deliberate. But Lands' End was willing to change -- the mark of a good business and of fundamentally decent people.

And what happens to those businesses that are not willing to change? Why, they may find themselves hauled into court and handing over millions of dollars worth of fines. Ha. ha, ha.

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