Colorstruck in Advertising

A. Bruce Crawley, Politic 365, May 1, 2012

Did you see the news last week about the “racially insensitive” advertising agency that handles television commercials for the Acura automobile? It was hard to miss. It was all over traditional and digital media, and actually started with a leaked alert to TMZ by a Black actor.

It turns out that Acura’s “casting agency” put out a call for a Black man who would be “nice looking, friendly, not too dark” to appear along with Jerry Seinfeld, in one of their new commercials.

Needless to say, people went “buck wild,” at least for a minute. There were the usual expressions of outrage and demands for an apology, which was subsequently given.

The situation was widely, but certainly not deeply, reported. In fact, it is clear that, once again, mainstream media totally botched and/or significantly underreported what should have been a larger story about the U.S. advertising industry’s long-standing, disrespectful, treatment of Black acting and marketing talent, Black-owned advertising agencies and Black-owned media, of all types.

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In 1994, Dr. Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, wrote that “African Americans account for just 2.1 percent of all marketing, advertising and public relations managers, which ranks these industries as 336th out of 351 monitored by the Bureau (of Labor Statistics).” In that same year, added Foxworth, “Advertising Age, the ‘bible’ of the advertising industry, estimated that African-American managers in mainstream ad agencies stood at approximately one percent.

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At about the same time [2009], the long-running Madison Avenue Project, designed to reduce racial disparities in the advertising industry, discovered: “…a persistent unwillingness by mainstream advertising agencies to hire, assign, advance and retain already-available Black talent.”

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In a 2008 doctoral thesis, “Effect of African-American Skin Tone on Advertising Communication,” Yuvay Jeanine Meyers set out to determine how the “skin tone” of a Black model in an advertisement affects specific outcome measures of advertising.”

According to the study, “More favorable attitudes were formed when the Black model’s skin tone was “light,” as opposed to when the Black model’s skin was ‘dark.’ ”

The author cited earlier studies, including one from 2005, on the subject of “colorism,” i.e., the process of discrimination that gives privilege to people of a lighter skin tone over their dark-skinned counterparts.

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Even more unfortunately, in a study done in 2006, a majority of African-American college students at a Midwestern university said that, “Lighter complexions are more attractive than darker ones.” Indeed, 96 percent of the men preferred a medium-to-light complexion in women, while “70 percent of women found light skin of value in men.”

So—maybe Acura’s ad agency was not being racist, at all. Maybe their agency’s creative people had simply done their homework and found that Americans—even African Americans—still feel less positively disposed to darker-skinned Black people than to light-skinned Black people.

Maybe they also were aware that even in Mother Africa, there seems to be a lingering inferiority complex about dark-skinned color, as a holdover from age-old perceptions of European political, economic and military dominance.

Indeed, in a report last month by Consultancy Africa Intelligence, it was disclosed that 35 percent of women in Pretoria, South Africa; 52 percent in Dakar, Senegal and 77 percent of female traders in Lagos, Nigeria, used skin-lightening chemicals on their faces and bodies (at some significant risk to their own health), and that these women say they associate lighter skin tones with “elegance, beauty and higher social status.”

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