In Grady’s article (2015), advertisements containing black people from the Life magazine (1936-2000) were drawn as examples of commercial practices in mass media that embody connotations and changes with regard to black people’s social roles and relations to whites in history (+Ad). In the film Ethnic Notions, stereotypical depictions of African Americans in different stages in American black history are shown to exemplify the entrenchment of racial segregation institutionally and culturally. In response, this assignment analyzes images of black people in contemporary advertisements to see if the social rules in the aforementioned materials that define blackness and their standing in society still apply today.
I found advertisements from Asia that still imply racist notions about black people and those that integrate blacks as equal members of the society.
The first two ads are designed for products marketed in Asia only, where black people comprise an insignificant proportion of the population. Figure 1 (2015) is a long-standing toothpaste brand “Black Person Toothpaste”, using a familiar logo of a smiling black man in a top hat and a suit with a bowtie. The logo has appeared in a variety of tooth care products particularly marketed as “Expert White”, its whitening technology. The manufacturer has been acquired by Colgate who claimed to only target their products toward the Asian market, where the public would take away with the notion that black people have white teeth. This portrayal reminiscent of the black minstrels and Jim Crow dancers in the late 19th century fits successfully in the commercial campaign of “Black Person Toothpaste” with consistent popularity today.
Figure 2 (2013) is a product called “Charcoal Donut” launched by Dunkin Donuts Thailand in 2013. The Thai model’s dark bare skin, large volume of braids and hot pink lips are designed to represent Africanness. Her physical features seem to fade into the black background and blend in with the object “Charcoal Donut” between her fingers. In history exaggerated physical features of black people were commonly used to promote food products. This ad’s attempt to mix the artificial skin color with the donut very much resembles the black caricatures on snack product labels decades ago, reducing the African Americans’ expertise and focus in life to merely epicurean pursuit.
As in Ethnic Notions, images of black people have become logos and symbols that found their way into daily life. The public’s exposure to those ads could be the only source of information about the black as a collective race to the Chinese who do not have chances or interests to encounter black people academically or in person. The absence of black population in their life does not constrain the portrayal of black people in mass media according to the producers’ will. Therefore the consumers’ notions of black people are constructed mainly or only by the ads. Advertisements portraying iconic stereotypes of black people that trace back to the Antebellum era are still present in East Asian/Southeast Asian markets.
In contrast, the third example of LANCOME foundation makeup (Figure 3, 2014) celebrates the natural beauty of women of color. This marks a change in the standard of beauty in America for black women: around the Civil War era black women were often portrayed in media as big, strong, subservient, and stripped of sexual appeals as “happy slaves” in Ethnic Notions, while in this Paris-based makeup brand they can be equally attractive and powerful in their natural beauty without bowing down to the white superiority. The model Nyong being a famous African American actress also sets a model for greater acceptance of black beauty.
In terms of black people’s presence in public spheres in relation to white people, Figure 5 (2013) captures a short scene in the American Insurance TV commercial. The white-collar black woman consults with several white workers in a professional manner with a solemn face, but none of the white workers show their front faces or look directly into the black woman’s eyes. After about 10 seconds of work scenes, the black woman returns home to attend to her two black children. Her job and interaction with whites deviate from the social function of blacks to serve white people as portrayed in old episodes of Life magazine. She is idealized as an independent, capable, and committed citizen that pursues the American Dream. But nothing is shown regarding the demographics or conditions in her neighborhood. This ad seems to escape concerns of racism because it does not deal with black-white relations directly enough.
Advertisements provide a site for producers to use symbols of desirable qualities to convince consumers of their products’ values. The assumptive nature of these values then becomes familiarized and accepted as social facts. In the above collection of contemporary advertisements containing images of black people, progress to subvert racist depictions has been made, but some old values still persists and are rendered different tastes, especially in particular regions less relevant to African American history and life.
Figure 1. “Black Person Toothpaste”. Characters read: “DARLIE/Black Person Toothpaste/Super White”.
Figure 2. “Charcoal Donut”, released by Dunkin’ Donuts Thailand in 2013 on posters and various social networks.
Figure 3. “Lancome Teint Idole Ultra 24H”, 2014. Beauty product line for women of a darker complexion.
Figure 4. “American Family Insurance” TV commercial clip, 2013.
John Grady “Advertising images as social indicators: Depictions of Blacks in Life magazine (1936-2000)” Visual studies (22:3), 211-239;
Ethnic Notions Berkeley, CA: California Newsreel, 1987