The dictionary defines colorism as “a form of racial discrimination based on the shade of an individual’s skin tone, typically favoring lighter skin.” In the United States, and throughout the Americas, this skin tone bias was born during the enslavement of kidnapped Africans; the black slaves with lighter complections were typically treated better by their owners. Outside of the United States, colorism is more a result of classism than racism. For example, the ruling classes across Asia usually had lighter skin in comparison to peasants who toiled outside in the sun all day, making their skin dark. In today’s world, Western influences in Asia, as well as the continent’s own history, make up the reasoning behind colorism. How does this prejudice bleed into advertising?
From Pepsi to Dove, many major brands have flubbed their diverse marketing attempts. Heineken, the beer brand, made the obvious mistake with their “Lighter is Better” campaign. While the title alone is enough to raise an eyebrow, the commercial itself was heavily criticized when it featured a bartender sliding a bottle of the beverage past several dark-skinned people of color into the hands of a light-skinned woman. The tagline, Sometimes lighter is better, materializes on screen. Dove faced similar outrage when its soap advertisement showed a black woman turning herself white with implied use of the product. The commercial echoed historically racist sentiments seen in soap ads of the 1800s. Similarly, advertisements popularize skin bleaching creams throughout Asia and some countries in Africa, and echo colorist sentiments.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people who identify as black or African American comprise just five percent of those working in marketing and advertising. The lack of diversity and inclusivity in professional spaces could explain why so many racist advertisements are greenlit despite attempts at diversity and inclusion. Who is in the boardrooms with these marketing execs to tell them that their concept might be racist? Are the few people of color who hold seats in these meetings empowered to speak up without fear of potentially losing their jobs or being labeled as angry and too quick to play the race card? And the issue goes beyond poor branding for the company – much of what we see in the media shapes how we view everyday life and people. These perceptions sometimes manifest in the ads we see.
In 2007, the market research firm, Yankelovich Inc., reported that Americans see an average of 5,000 ads per day. One can only imagine how much that number has increased over the last decade. Consequently, it’s easy to hypothesize that the constant inundation advertisements enforces stereotypes and standards of beauty. With most marketing designed to appeal to the subconscious, there’s space to assume that certain biases seep into the general public’s mind, whether it’s intended or not.
Representation in media – both negative and positive – matters. The way we see others and ourselves informs our opinions about each other, which can either perpetuate negative sentiments or foster respect and understanding. For these reasons, agencies are responsible for the way they present different groups of people. Furthermore, it’s in the best interest of a company to portray groups respectfully or risk widespread backlash, amplified by the viral nature of social media.
Instead of fearing the responsibility of meaningful representation, companies should embrace the unique opportunity they have to uplift others and promote unity. Marketing is powerful and has the ability to shift mindsets and drive our culture. This power is to be respected and used not just for making money, but for contributing to the collective good of society.