The insidious racism in today’s TV ads

A model presents a creation of Custo Barcelona at Montjuic Castle during “Bread & Butter” fashion show in Barcelona July 6, 2007.
A model presents a creation of Custo Barcelona at Montjuic Castle during “Bread & Butter” fashion show in Barcelona July 6, 2007.
Image: Reuters/Albert Gea
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For most of TV history, Black people rarely saw themselves on screen—not on shows, and not in commercials, either. Jason Paul Chambers, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Illinois, still remembers the jolt of surprise he felt more than 20 years ago when, lying on the couch and channel hopping one day, he stumbled upon a Lexus ad featuring a Black couple. “It wasn’t until the 1990s that we got into things like African-Americans being used to advertise luxury brands,” he says.

Diversity in TV advertising has improved in the ensuing years. A recent survey from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, for example, found that 38% of characters featured in advertisements at the 2019 Cannes Lions festival were people of color, compared to 26% in 2006, the earliest available data. Eighteen percent of characters in the ads were Black, and characters of color were as likely as white characters to be featured in prominent visual and speaking roles.

Advertisers have a strong financial incentive to keep investing in diversity: 62% of consumers say that a brand’s diversity or lack thereof impacts their perception of it, according to a 2019 Adobe survey of over 2,000 adults in the US and UK. And 34% say they’ve stopped supporting a brand because they didn’t see their own identity reflected in its advertising. The same survey also found that, despite sweeping changes in the TV advertising industry, commercials on network TV continue to have a lot of cultural impact: 43% of consumers say they say see the most diversity in network TV ads, compared to ads on social media (20%), basic cable (16%), and streaming (13%).

Still, racism in advertising is far from over—particularly when it comes to the problem of colorism. One way that many ads continue to perpetuate racial bias is by prioritizing light-skinned people as the chosen representatives of all Black people—what Chambers calls the “lighter, brighter, better” approach.

Advertisers will “try to get the model to be as light as possible, but still just enough to be a representation of someone ethnic,” he explains.

On its own, representation of light-skinned people is not problematic, according to Nikki Khanna, an associate professor in sociology at the University of Vermont whose research focuses on race and identity. However, she says, “it becomes a problem when it comes at the expense of the representation of darker-skinned Americans—including darker-skinned African Americans, but also darker-skinned Asian and Latinx Americans.” It’s also a way of perpetuating the harmful idea that whiteness, or proximity to whiteness, is the epitome of beauty, to which all people should aspire.

Colorism in advertising

In a recent paper published in M/C Journal, an international media and culture publication, New Zealand-based doctoral researcher Nancy Johnson-Hunt describes how, since the early 2000s, the beauty industry has increasingly relied upon light-skinned, ethnically ambiguous, or mixed-race models. “Ethnically ambiguous models have an assumed advantage over their racially dominant counterparts, because they appear to straddle various racial boundaries. They are constructed to embody whomever, from wherever and whenever,” she writes.

Across industries, advertisers often rely on light-skinned models in the hopes that they can get consumers of different races and ethnicities to “see” themselves reflected in a single person, rather than featuring models who represent a range of distinctive backgrounds and the variations in skin tone within them. Critics say this reductionist line of thinking reveals a lack of real commitment to diversity. “It’s lazy to attempt to paint large swaths of people with one racially ambiguous brush and expect everyone to simply accept it and move on,” Tiana Gosten, a broadcast traffic manager at communications agency Innocean, tells AdAge.

White culture’s historical prejudice against, and violent characterization of, dark-skinned people no doubt also plays a role in the preponderance of light-skinned actors in advertisements. This prejudice occasionally becomes explicit, as when car company Acura was forced to apologize in 2012 after putting out a casting call for a Super Bowl ad featuring a Black actor who looked “friendly” and “not too dark.”

Black consumers are well-aware of the problem. A 2019 report from market research company Horowitz Research found that 36% of Black people with darker skin tones feel entirely unrepresented by the advertising industry, compared to 25% of Black people with lighter skin.

Skin-lightening under scrutiny

The industry’s emphasis on light-skinned models goes hand-in-hand with the skin-whitening creams and ointments that are heavily advertised in some parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa—a market valued at more than $8 billion. “Ads for these creams reinforce long-held cultural norms throughout Asia that light skin is what is most beautiful and most desired, and then these messages are learned and re-learned and passed from generation to generation,” Khanna says.

The recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests around the world have put skin-lightening products under particular scrutiny. Johnson & Johnson announced in June that it would stop producing the skin-lightening product lines Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clear Fairness by Clean & Clear. Unilever, meanwhile, has said that it will rebrand its skin-lightening cream Fair & Lovely as Glow & Lovely—a move that critics argue doesn’t go far enough. It’s also worth noting that Dove, owned by Unilever, was among the largest spenders of the 21 companies that rolled out racial-justice ad campaigns in the immediate wake of the protests; a company’s advertising doesn’t necessarily align with its actions.

Chambers says that consumers have increasing power in determining whether the current racial-justice zeitgeist makes a lasting impact on brands and agencies—and holding them to account. Thanks to social media, he notes, consumers have “the ability to keep issues on the forefront of a concentrated group of people’s minds.”

“Consumers are everything,” he says. And they are “more interested than ever in a company’s position on a variety of social topics.”