Racism in American TV Advertisements

Opposite Opinions on New Trend of Black Representation
A biracial family featured in a commercial for a clothes brand.

Starting two years ago, with the killing of Black George Floyd by the knee of a White policeman, through the expansion of Black Lives Movement (BLM), to the progressive racial policies of President Joe Biden, the relations between Whites and Blacks in America, ironically, seems to be more negative than positive.

Recently, Newsweek magazine had a cover story about division among White Americans about how to treat Blacks. Moreover, the London-based Economist recently published a cover story critical of Biden’s progressive policies, particularly those about racial relations.

It is not by accident that both Britain and the US have recently been engulfed in a new racial debate: the number of Blacks in TV advertisements.

Opponents said that while Black Americans are 12 percent of the population, they appeared in about 40 percent of TV advertisements – about the same for Black British although they are only one percent of the population.

Needless to say that most of these opponents are White, but the race problem in America has mostly been about White fear of Blacks, and Black mistrust in Whites.

There seems to be more than one question about this new trend by major American companies and their advertising agencies, which are, ironically, controlled by Whites:

First, do they believe that they can somehow make amends for past slavery and racial discrimination?

Second, are they terrified of being called out as racists?

Third, is this an exaggerated correction for perennial accusations by Blacks that they were under-represented in television and movies?

Fourth, is it their guilty consciences for the still-present racism, direct or indirect?

Following are two opposing opinions that illustrate the root of the problem.  On one side, Whites are afraid of Black anger and, therefore, are eager to please them, and on the other side is Black distrust of Whites, even if, as in this case, the Whites are favoring the Blacks – or are they really doing that?

On one side, Rob Rhode, who is the editor-in-chief of the “Cranky Creative” website that specializes in TV advertisements, and on the other side, Christopher Boulton, who is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Tampa (Florida).

RHODE: “WHITE GUILT”

“Let’s talk about diversity in TV commercials

If you only watched TV, you might think that Whites are a minority in the United States; or that the United States population is nearly 70 percent Black and 30 percent ‘Other.’

You’d be wrong, of course. According to the 2020 Census, Whites make up 62 percent of the population, Blacks 12 percent, Hispanics or Latinos 19 percent, and Asians six percent …

Yet, today it’s getting to the point where the average family in a TV commercial will soon consist of a Black man, a White woman, and their two Chinese kids.

While there’s no doubt that society is becoming more diverse, you have to admit that something feels off here.

It’s a legitimate question to ask why 12 percent of the population is given so much representation and the Whites are a shrinking minority in U.S. television commercials …

Where are the Hispanic and Asian people?

Together, these groups now account for 25 percent of the U.S. population, yet they do not appear in anywhere near 25 percent of the advertising.

Going by the commercials, one would think that Hispanic and Asian people make up a far smaller percentage of the population than Blacks, when in fact their number is double.

This is not authentic. This is not realistic or representative. And unfortunately, the frequency of the misrepresentation is only one part of the problem.

Why?

First, advertisement research suggests that minority consumers prefer to see Whites in TV ads when those ads do not include their own ethnic group.

Second, ads show Blacks who do not represent Blacks who are mostly of a lesser socio-economic level.

Third, Black TV stars seem to walk, talk, dress and behave like Whites as they try to be successful in life …

We see it all the time: Blacks in an upper-middle-class family, wearing upper-middle-class clothes, living in an upper-middle-class home and doing upper-middle-class things, like attending piano recitals, or gaming with pals on razor-thin laptops, or having a backyard birthday party complete with pink princess decorations and a tent and giant bounce-house …

What a sad missed opportunity for companies and their advertisement agencies, to show the best in all of us. And to celebrate the things that make our cultures interwoven -- instead of this color separation.

For now, the only thing “equitable” about all this is how equally insulting it is to everyone …”

BOULTON: “THANKS BUT NO THANKS”

“Advertising has this unique ability to persuade by creating the appearance of change through rhetoric, symbols and events. When it comes to race, advertising has helped corporations and existing power structures conceal and protect White gains and Black losses ….

So as Black Lives Matter gained mainstream acceptance, companies that were eager to stay on trend turned to ad agencies to help them join the movement through woke messaging.

Long-standing public pressure campaigns to end commercial monuments to White supremacy were, in fact, finally successful this time.

While these hard-won victories are worth savoring, they are still largely symbolic because it's hard to ascribe them to any true change of attitude …

The people spoke, but it was really that money talked. So, when Proctor & Gamble tells its consumers that ‘Now is the time to be Anti-Racist,’ one has to wonder whether the companies and the agencies that produced the ad are serious.

Because, when it comes to feigning change while continuing to marginalize Black lives and maintain White power, advertising has a long record as a repeat offender …

And nothing demonstrates that more clearly than the ongoing, striking lack of diversity in the advertising industry itself.

Heads of major corporations and advertising agencies, according to researches that I have conducted with my students, are less than one percent (0.7) Black — a stark contrast to the 13 percent of the U.S. population that is Black …

Recently, an open letter from a coalition of 600 Black advertising professionals called for urgent action from agency leadership … But, neither major corporations, nor the American Advertising Federation, even bothered to take the letter seriously …”