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Erasure in Ad: The Reclamation of the Black Image

Written by Elgin Watts II, Katrina White, Sarah Sheerer, and Camille Hagins, Illustration by Marissa Rivers

Let’s talk about Doodlebob: the character from Spongebob that tried to “erase” people from existence with a magic pencil. Well, not Doodlebob himself, but his mission. Unfortunately, you don’t need a magic pencil to erase people in real life: all you need is ignorance and power. This manifests as the concept of erasure, defined in a New York Times article as “the practice of collective indifference that renders certain groups of people invisible.”

Collective indifference and the lack of recognition for achievements, feelings and concerns has plagued history for centuries, and Black Americans are just one of the many groups still experiencing this today. From rock pioneer Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” being overshadowed by a version from a white guy to the Academy Awards’ exclusion of Black screen actors and the #OscarsSoWhite movement, it’s clear that Black talent is still being overlooked.

It’s about more than just being awarded and credited, it’s about feeling seen and heard. As you might expect, Black erasure has a large presence within the advertising industry as well — both in the ads seen by the general public and behind the scenes.

Representation in Advertising

Early 1900s advertisers solidified the racial hierarchy by fostering stereotypes about ignorance and subservience. Ever notice that food brands tend to show a smiling Black cook? Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Mrs. Butterworth all represent servatory Black characters as the faces of the brands. Because of its offensive portrayal of Black Americans, the Aunt Jemima brand recently changed to the Pearl Milling Company name and logo. Aunt Jemima might be the first to update its out-of-touch figure, but the other brands will soon be following its lead. 

During the 1970s, stereotypical ads targeting Black consumers started appearing more and more. Advertisers used lines like McDonald’s “Get Down with a cheeseburger at McDonald’s” and “Do Your Dinnertimin’ at McDonald’s” to “relate” more to Black consumers. Companies may have started highlighting diversity in their ads, but did so in extremely offensive ways. Many white-dominated agencies weren’t familiar with black communities, leading them to rely heavily on stereotypes when targeting that audience.

Even worse, a whole new stereotype was created when alcohol and cigarette companies began seeking out Black customers. This caused more companies to target Black consumers in “vice-related categories.” Even today, there tend to be more tobacco retailers in Black and Brown communities, showing a few ads can have a significant impact on the future. 

So, what’s it like to break into the advertising industry today? Not easy, as advertising agencies are primarily white. In 2019, only 0.7% of advertising and promotion managers in the United States were Black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This statistic largely correlates with white nepotism. When white people in positions of power recommend their white friends for open positions, these “must-hires” gain an automatic leg up against Black applicants. If a Black applicant even earns the chance to enter the industry, the odds that they will eventually rise to a higher-level position are slim. According to 4A’s, “of the less than 6% who are Black or African American… 27.6% are managers or directors and just 4% are vice presidents or higher.” These stats show that there is rarely Black perspective in the room, sadly allowing offensive advertisements targeting Black consumers to be run due to ignorance and oversight.

When true representation is viewed as secondary, the quality of work reflects that. Case in point: the notorious Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad. Because less than 6% of the advertising industry is Black, and out of them, nearly 70% are in entry-level positions, it’s difficult to speak up when the rest of the team thinks something like this is a good idea. Add in the fact that more than half of Black office workers have experienced racism while on the job, and it’s no wonder that so many feel they have no voice.

Office Culture & Expectations

When you think of professionalism in the workplace, you probably think of ironed shirts, gelled down hair and formal pleasantries. Racism and discrimination aren’t usually the first things that come to mind. But, professionalism revolves around white values and culture. It’s a “one-size-fits-some” model of Western dress, speech and hairstyles — and Black hair doesn’t always fit this mold. 

As a young professional, Assistant Media Planner Jayda Hill experienced this in her new workplace. In a Zoom interview, Hill said, “I’ve been explaining my hair since I was in high school,” and has felt concerned about the state of her hair since being employed. During a virtual meeting, Hill turned off her camera to hide the fact that her hair was in a bonnet. Although wearing a bonnet is a normal part of having Black hair, modern day office culture labels it as “unprofessional.” 

Black professionals are constantly combating unfair racial stereotypes while trying to do their jobs. It’s exhausting trying to prove themselves as equally professional and qualified as their colleagues. With all of the stereotypes affecting economic opportunities for Black professionals, many feel the need to code switch. Code switching is when you shift your language, dress or self-expression in conversations.

It’s the dark truth, but for many Black employees, being professional means erasing your identity — both visually and vocally.

The Future of Gen Z and Erasure

As Gen Z begins to enter the workforce, it is extremely important to recognize that this is the most diverse generation yet — and every new generation grows more diverse. Erasure divides, and allows for those who don’t fit the “one-size-fits-some” version of the advertising industry to be placed on the sidelines, unable to express themselves authentically. It hurts the individuals affected, their surrounding team, and the industry as a whole.

Jayda Hill took initiative to increase visibility of BIPOC professionals in advertising through her Instagram account, The Ad Hustler (@theadhustler). She quickly found that social media accounts existed that highlighted BIPOC individuals in industries like health and engineering, but there were none for the ad space, so she created one herself. “If more Black kids see us in the industry, then they know they can do it too,” Hill said. “Sharing their stories will inspire other people.”

Gen Z wants to make a change. As the most diverse generation, we know how important it is to speak up. But, speaking up means more than simply being politically active on Twitter. It means speaking up when a coworker is clearly being treated unfairly, recognizing when there’s a lack of diversity in your team, and highlighting more than just one perspective in media representation.

Erasure perpetuates when no one speaks up. Being an ally means doing just that. It also means knowing when not to speak. Listening can, at times, be even more important than speaking up. When it comes to Black and BIPOC issues, it’s important to leave room for those individuals to speak up. It’s also important to make these individuals feel welcome to express contrasting opinions on other issues. 

Advertising tends to follow trends, but it’s important to note that being Black is no trend. Black history exists beyond the month of February, just like American history exists beyond July 4th. True allies are those that recognize this and seek to make a real difference.