Recess is black, KEEN encourages African-Americans outdoors with new ad

Recently outdoor shoemaker KEEN Footwear launched an ad meant to appeal to people who seldom see themselves depicted in nature. And in doing so the company made a rare overture of welcome to a much-underrepresented segment of our population committed to playtime outside, the African-American Family.

As part of its campaign called “Recess is Back”, KEEN aims to encourage people from all walks of life to remember the importance of play. In a strategy designed to be as diverse as possible the new ad includes a black couple with two children having fun in a wilderness setting. The image is unremarkable in its composition, themes or connotation of enthusiasm. But when compared to similar ads in the outdoor industry that typically (almost exclusively) feature white models it is striking in its contrast to who we expect to see playing outdoors. And in contradiction to our misbeliefs the ad simply illustrates the fact that everyone has a rightful place in nature. In a media world of inclusion recess is black.

At its best advertising creates a compelling vision ourselves. Graphic images that reflect our highest aspirations and ideals pique our interests to make a direct connection between who we are and who we most want to be. The KEEN ad demonstrates the company’s value of diversity and more importantly declares to a broad audience that they want their business.

“It’s not part of a specific plan to reach to specific minority groups,” said Linda Tom Balfour marketing manager at KEEN. “Our platform is about being inclusive, that the outdoors is inclusive. And we want everyone to know that they are invited to be part of the KEEN family.”

Shot in the very diverse community of Portland, Oregon the image Balfour said was not hard to come by. Finding ordinary people across the racial spectrum enjoying nature is common. But these depictions are rarely seen i  mainstream media or commercial ad campaigns. Companies interested in diversity have to make an effort to find it.

“It’s easy to default to the athletes that you know and the people that you hangout with,” Balfour said. “And if you’re circles are not that big you’re going to have to make them grow…It’s about broadening your circles and inviting more people to play with you.”

Advertisements that are inclusive send a clear message to consumers. When people of color see themselves engaged in an activity or using a particular product, they know that they are invited to join in the fun. This week  Rue Mapp creator of the web site Outdoor Afro was added to KEEN’s team of product ambassadores. She said the company’s outreach to African-Americans gives them a market advantage.

“They’re actually starting off as a young company with diversity in mind,” she said. “And that’s going to position them for great success.”

With billions of dollars in purchasing power Mapp said African-Americans form a vast base of new consumers who could significantly influence the outdoor industry.

“So it makes sense for a brand like KEEN to put themselves out there,” she said, “to represent the appropriate gear and to encourage the activities where it can be used.”

And it’s worth mentioning that when encouraged to spend more time in the outdoors people of color also become invested in protecting it. Apart from growing the number of outdoor industry consumers, more diverse outreach through advertising also builds the constituency of individuals, citizens who will likely vote to allocate funds and enact legislation to preserve wilderness.

The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support of sponsor Patagonia


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I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.