Race in Advertising

From time to time, race issues pop up in advertising. Race is a tricky subject in advertising because common approaches tend to reinforce racial stereotypes and rub people the wrong way if not handled with care.

Sensibilities vary from city to city and from country to country. Since the United States went through the civil rights movement, many Americans are aware of race issues and may recognize on their own when people of color are depicted in an unfavorable light.

In 2010, a KFC ad ran in Australia depicting a lone white fan at a cricket game, surrounded by a rowdy bunch of black West Indians. To restore order, the white cricket fan placates the entire crowd with a bucket of fried chicken. I’ve read commentary from Australians rejecting claims that the ad perpetuates racial stereotypes, but the controversy raised enough public ire that KFC eventually pulled the ad.

nivea ad

In 2011, Nivea ran an ad depicting a preppy, groomed black man holding the head of his former self, who is sporting a beard, an Afro, and an angry expression. The ad clearly conveyed a message—the idea that natural hair on a black man is uncivilized, rather than simply being a style preference or a nod to Afrocentrism. The ad was pulled and the company issued an apology.

The main goal of some political ads is to spread fear and distrust of opposing candidates by focusing on differences that can be portrayed as “anti-American.” This ad for Pete Hoekstra’s Michigan Senate run was shown during the 2012 Super Bowl. The fact that this ad encouraged xenophobia caused such outrage against Pete Hoekstra that Hoekstra’s opponent Debbie Stabenow actually saw a rush of donations to her campaign as a direct result of the ad. The ad was pulled by the Hoekstra campaign soon after.

On the other hand, many ads that feature people of color are successful:

Levy's Rye Bread

In the 1960s, Levy’s Jewish Rye ad campaign was an effort to expand the customer base of Levy’s Jewish Rye beyond the Jewish community. The ad campaign featured ordinary New Yorkers of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds and was groundbreaking for its inclusiveness.

Benneton ads

In the 1980s, the clothing company United Colors of Benetton gained a reputation for pushing the envelope in areas of race and religion with some of the most memorable ad campaigns in advertising history. I’ve heard some people complain that some Benetton ads are racist, but provocative ads are designed to test the line of what is appropriate and to make people literally stop in their tracks and take notice.

In 2000, Canada and Portugal released these antiracist ads. While the ads are a little heavy-handed, the sentiment behind them is commendable: they are sending the message that racial intolerance is not acceptable behavior.

Recently, Target, Volvo, McDonald’s, and various other companies released a number of ads featuring Asian Americans. What I like about these ads is that they are not about race at all but about people going about their daily lives. It is encouraging to see some ads heading in the right direction.

It is important for all of us to be vigilant about recognizing offensive ads and to take action when we spot them. The fact is, all of the racist ads featured in this blog post were retracted by the advertisers due to pressure exerted by the general public. So make your voice heard—it is crucial that you speak up.

One Comment

  1. Posted May 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Really interesting bunch of adverts – what companies get away with is unbelievable.


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  1. [...] to my previous posts on Race-Based Comedy and Race in Advertising, this post is a small glimpse into a bigger topic that welcomes further discussion. These subjects [...]

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