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September 2, 2014, 12:46 am

Colorism in advertising

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.

Mainstream media, and most bloggers, didn’t even attempt to put the Acura “friendly, not too dark” story into context. It was simply: “Casting agency caught being insensitive, apology issued by the agency, case closed.”

If casual readers didn’t dig any deeper than that, they would have been ill-informed. They might have believed that other than the “Acura” kind of isolated misstep, the advertising industry is actually some bastion of glamour, truth, justice and fairness.

They’d be wrong, of course, on almost all counts. Indeed, there’s actually not much glamour, at all, about an industry that has perennially been recognized as extremely and dismissively insensitive, and blatantly racist, for as long as anyone can remember.

As hard as that same casual reader might have tried, it would have been very difficult to find very much “fairness” in an industry that was ranked last year by “News One for Black America” as the sixth-worst industry in the country, with regard to Black under-representation. In producing their ranking, reporters cited the fact that Civil Rights leaders and Black advertising professionals disclosed, in 2009, that the advertising industry is 40 percent more discriminatory than the general job marketplace, and actually worse today, in that regard, than it was 30 years ago.

I must say that I found it almost laughable that the news coverage about the Acura commercial tried to give the impression that “skin color preference” was in any way unusual in the industry, or in the country, as a whole.

First, let’s deal with the sordid race-based history of the ad business. A report, back in 1996, by the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy, which was submitted to the Federal Communications Commission, addressed the practice wherein large advertisers testified to their advertising agencies that their upcoming campaigns included “No urban/Spanish dictates.”

What that widely used practice simply meant was that the large corporate advertisers had officially relieved their agencies from any obligation to include Black or minority-focused radio stations or cable outlets, in their campaigns.

In a related practice, advertisers also insisted upon receiving “minority discounts,” i.e., minority-focused or -owned stations would be paid, by design, less revenue, per each of their listeners, than mainstream-focused stations, even when they had the same audience sizes.

No wonder there are just 240 black-owned radio stations out of 11,000, nationwide. No wonder it’s so hard to turn a profit at a Black-owned station.

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.

In its 2009 report, “Research Perspectives on Race and Employment In the Advertising Industry,” Bendick and Egan Economic Consultants disclosed that Black college graduates working in advertising earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by similarly qualified white counterparts; that 16 percent of large ad agencies employed no Black managers, whatsoever, a rate 60 percent higher than the overall labor market; and that eliminating the ad industry’s current Black-white employment gap would require tripling its current level of Black managers and professionals.

At about the same time, 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.”

Even in the midst of this self-defeating commitment to Civil War-era employment policies, it’s clear that the whole “preference for light-complected Black thing” is not peculiar to Acura advertising, or even, sadly, to racially biased white persons.

Black folks have apparently been sipping the same Kool Aid.

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.

Ms. Meyers’ scientific analysis considered the fact that the advertising industry, in trying to make the most favorable and productive use of Black models and actors, certainly needed to have a clear understanding of “colorism” and its potential impact on its clients’ sales.

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.”

In summary, it appears that, like many other things having to do with racial unfairness in this country, “colorism” in the selection of models for ad campaigns is based partly on long-standing negative institutional practices, but also, on Black folks’ own continued willingness to be psychologically subjugated by whites, and to feel inferior to them as if there really was some inherent, God-given, advantage in having been born with white, or light, skin.

Before we get mad at Acura’s ad agency, before we set out to bring “justice” to the entire advertising agency business, maybe we should work on bringing common sense, self-pride and economic self-determination to our own community.

How can we expect others to respect us and our dark skins, if we, ourselves, don’t?


A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.