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Almost a year later, Black & Abroad is still getting dividends from its provocative Go Back to Africa marketing campaign, designed to combat racism, diversify travel advertising, and help black Americans envision themselves on the continent. The boutique Atlanta-based company sells international trips and is a staple of the black travel movement.
The campaign was unexpectedly popular in Ghana, according to Black & Abroad co-founders Kent Johnson and Eric Martin, who said the majority of their upcoming trips are now on the continent. They are also in the early stages of considering more personalized ancestry trips to Africa based on DNA tests. Most recently, Johnson and Martin took a group of 20 to Ghana at the end of 2019, also known as Ghana’s Year of Return, a government initiative targeting the diaspora. The country has a decades-long history of encouraging black American visitation.
“They had people welcoming us home at the airport,” said Martin of the recent Ghana trip. “It was like coming home to a long-lost family that you never met before … Our next trips to Ghana are forever going to be upstaged by December 2019.”
The brand’s visibility has increased 315 percent since the campaign, including social media impressions and traffic to both the brand’s site and GoBackToAfrica.com, which has in turn translated into new bookings.
The campaign earned a Grand Prix at Cannes, a bronze Clio Award, and much positive media attention, but some viewers gave it negative reviews. Some accused the brand of profiting from hate speech, though Johnson and Martin stood by their original intent of “displacing hate.”
“Some people absolutely hate it. Some people have said to me directly that it’s the most important work they’ve ever seen,” said Andrea Cook, president of FCB/Six, which created the campaign along with IPG’s Initiative. “It’s a hypersensitive moment in time for us in general. To take on this issue at this time in any way was perceived as slightly risky.” She said the campaign had long-term benefits beyond boosting the client’s business: Googling “that horrible phrase” now gives you more positive results.
“That’s what drew me to [Black & Abroad],” said traveler Danielle Jackson about the video. “It brought a lot of emotions, especially living where I live, it’s kind of like the whitest city in America.” The 31-year-old legal secretary is based in Portland, Oregon, and went on the December trip to Ghana. That was her first trip with Black & Abroad and her first time anywhere in Africa. She’d previously heard of the brand from reading Essence.
Jackson now has plans to explore more of the continent in conjunction with taking a DNA test. “I’m hooked,” she said.
“There’s so much work that the campaign has to do, cleaning up all of the negativity that’s been spewed about the continent for so long,” said Martin. “We can’t clean up decades of derogatory imagery, of the old tired narrative, in one year. It’s gonna take time.” The campaign got a second wind, according to Johnson, when Trump told four congresswomen to “go back” where they came from, despite all being American citizens, three by birth.
The campaign originally hit in April 2019 as racial tension mounted in the United States. President Trump had previously referred to African nations as “shithole countries” and his isolationist policies — for example the travel bans and push for a border wall — were negatively affecting the travel industry.
The campaign’s website uses Google Vision image recognition technology to collect images from social media of black travelers in destinations beyond tried-and-true hotspots like Cape Town, across the continent’s 54 countries. The campaign also takes derogatory mentions of “go back to Africa” in real time on Twitter, erases the racist context, then places the phrase on top of a positive image from the continent in targeted ads.
Johnson and Martin feel that their work in connecting black Americans to the motherland has just begun, not to mention introducing them to a highly innovative continent that bucks the aforementioned “old tired narrative” of a place stuck in the past.
“Africa is the future of everything,” said Martin.
And the new narrative resonates with travelers too. “Not having to hold my breath and worry, are these people watching me? Am I going to be followed?” said Jackson. “You can let your hair down and just be.”