A Brief History Of Companies Courting African-American Dollars
- By ELENA GOORAY
- Dove landed itself in a marketing mess last week when a Facebook advertisement for the company’s Deep Moisture bodywash struck some viewers as insensitive, even racist.
In the video, released on October 7th, a black woman removes her brown shirt and transforms into a white woman in a peach shirt, who then becomes a South Asian woman wearing tan. Shortly after it was released, critics accused the ad of treating dark skin as dirty and undesirable, an old cosmetics-advertising practice that is still used to sell skin-lightening products today. In response, Dove withdrew the clip one day later and apologized in a post on Facebook. The company said it “missed the mark”—the same phrase Pepsi used in April to respond to critics of a commercial in which the light-skinned model Kendall Jenner mends police-civilian tensions during a protest by handing a cop a soda.
For decades, advertisements that attempt to convey progressive values to non-white consumers have fallen flat. That’s been especially true for black Americans. Until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s increased African Americans’ political visibility and access to education and jobs, they were virtually ignored by advertisers, according to William O’Barr, a cultural anthropology professor at Duke University and the author of a book on cultural representation in marketing. “Minority groups in the past were sometimes so oppressed economically that they didn’t have much money to spend, and therefore weren’t an important part of the market,” O’Barr says.
Americans of color have long since become major forces in the American economy: A Nielsen report released last month argued that black women drive black Americans’ growing spending power, which is projected to reach $1.5 trillion by 2021. Black women, the report says, are values-focused consumers and entrepreneurs—the number of firms primarily owned by black women rose 67 percent between 2007 and 2012. Nielsen asserts that black women should matter to advertisers—a thesis that is disconcerting, suggesting that businesses still need to be reminded.
The Nielsen report and Dove ad highlight two enduring trends in the commercial representation of black Americans: neglect on one hand, and misrepresentation on the other. Sometimes, controversial representation is justified on the grounds that it’s at least better than neglect. The Nigerian model who starred in the Dove campaign published a column on Tuesday defending the company as sending a positive message by including her in the first place, and noting that the ad’s Web edit removed some of its context.
Ultimately, though, even the most inclusive ads come from a white-dominated industry: Only 4.1 percent of advertising workers in the U.S. last year were black, though black Americans make up 13.3 percent of the population overall. The timeline below highlights key moments for American advertising’s appeals to black consumers—as well as black Americans’ initiatives to mobilize the power of their market.
The Pearl Milling Company, purveyors of ready-made pancake mix, patent the Aunt Jemima character, arguably the most famous example of the “mammy” stereotype—an older black woman who exists only to serve a white family. Her brand is later purchased by Quaker Oats. In 1989, the company responds to criticism from black artists and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People by replacing Aunt Jemima’s original kerchief with a lace collar and pearl earrings, a change intended to give her a fresh image distanced from the legacy of slavery.
Claude Barnett founds the Associated Negro Press in Chicago to provide national stories about African Americans to member newspapers. Barnett makes the ANP more profitable by creating a new ad service that allows publishers to pay for subscriptions by giving Barnett ad space to sell to outside marketers. He becomes one of the first advertising executives to show black models in both everyday and luxurious settings. Ebony and Jet magazines later draw inspiration from Barnett, also running articles and advertisements dominated by black stories and models.
Tobacco seller Philip Morris is attacked by a pro-segregation publication, the White Sentinel, for being “the first cigarette company to advertise in the Negro press.” Cigarette companies are among the first industries to work with black publications at all, but some of these companies are later criticized for disproportionately targeting black communities. Black Americans typically smoke fewer cigarettes and start smoking at an older age, but are more likely to die from smoking-related illness than whites.
African Americans boycott the segregated bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, eventually leading the Supreme Court to rule racial separation of busing unconstitutional. The boycott is one of multiple consumer protests that take place during the civil rights movement. Historian Robert E. Weems calls these protests “the most potent nonviolent strategy employed by African Americans” in this period.
Lyndon B. Johnson commissions the Kerner Report to investigate the causes behind, and prevent the recurrence of, the 1967 race riots in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan. The report identifies paltry media representation as one of the inequalities that helped drive the riots. It concludes: “Negro reporters and performers should appear more frequently—and at primetime—in news broadcasts, on weather shows, in documentaries, and in advertisements.”
Major companies led by white executives, such as Jello and Coca-Cola, begin advertising directly to African-American shoppers, sometimes resorting to cultural stereotypes in their ad copy. McDonald’s unveils a campaign that urges black families to “Get Down With a Cheeseburger” and uses “g-dropping” on verbs. “You can relax and get down with good food that won’t keep you waitin,'” one ad says. Another reads: “Dinnertimin’ and anytimin’, going out is easy at McDonald’s.”
The Government Accountability Office releases a report investigating the diversity of advertisers contracted by the federal government in 1986. Focusing on the Department of Defense, which is responsible for 97 percent of the 1986 federal advertising budget, the GAO finds that the government skirted requirements to give business to small, disadvantaged contractors.
Black lawmakers are 19 times as likely as non-black Democrats to receive campaign funding from the Lorillard Tobacco Company, a Mother Jones analysis of Center for Responsive Politics data reports. This finding is just one example of industries targeting black and other non-white consumers in ways that raise public-health concerns.
Additionally in 2014, Yale University releases a study with troubling findings for consumers: While beverage companies decreased their television and Web marketing of unhealthy drinks to children overall from 2010 to 2013, they intensified advertising to black and Latino teens, who have higher obesity rates than white teens. A separate 2017 analysis by the non-profit MapLight finds soda makers targeting Latino lawmakers. Leading up to a vote on soda-tax bill in the California legislature, soda companies donated nearly twice as much money to Latino legislators compared to the average legislator.
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