History

Why The Advertising Industry Still Lacks Diversity

Continuing with the same theme from my article a couple of weeks ago about diversity in the media, this week I wanted to touch on the advertising industry.  Like television shows, the TV commercials during the breaks, as well as ads in print and online media are starting to reflect the changing, diverse American landscape.  Just yesterday, I walked by my local Old Navy store, which featured a black woman and white man in an embrace and a biracial child standing in front of them, implying this was an interracial family enjoying the brand’s new winter clothing line.  Then I went to a bus stop and saw an ad from the Chicago Tourism Bureau featuring what could be implied as two gay men also embracing at a festive occasion.  Yes, this is the new normal.

However, in the last few months, there has been a slew of problematic ads getting media attention.  Even when ad agencies have good intentions in their attempt to be more inclusive, they can fail miserably.

Take this above Dove ad.

If you haven’t heard about it already, it featured a black woman morphing into a white woman who morphs into an Asian woman.  The main problem here is that it implies that somehow the soap cleans so well that it changes black skin to white skin.  While Dove claims it didn’t intend to be racist in the ad, the company has a history of using the same racial tropes in their ads.  Just six years ago, Dove was accused of doing the same exact black to white/dirty to clean ad.

Not to mention that there still product advertising using racial overtones in use today – Aunt Jemima Pancakes, Uncle Ben Rice and Chef Frank White (Rastus) on the Cream of Wheat box just to name a few.

Racist soap ads have a long, unfortunate history in America.  From 1875 to 1921, soap manufacturer N.K. Fairbank used this ad featuring a white child asking a black child, “Why don’t you ask your mamma to wash you with fairy soap.  There were other ads with black children getting washed in the tub and come out with white skin.

Unfortunately, I am not surprised that these subtle racial overtones are still used in advertising.  While it is true that the advertising industry is using more diverse imagery in their ad placement, there is still a serious lack of diverse people working in ad agencies.

According to the 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 582,000 Americans employed in advertising, less than half are women, seven percent are black, six percent are Asian and 10 percent are Hispanic.   Comparatively by 2044 when it becomes a minority-majority country, the United States will be 49.7 percent white  (63 percent today), 25 percent Hispanic (17 percent today), 12.7 percent black, 7.9 percent Asian and 3.7 percent multiracial.  Essentially, the ad world is lagging behind the real world!  Most of the major ad agencies in America are still run by older, privileged white men who attended elite schools and only interact with people who look like them, often reflecting the TV show Mad Men, but taking place in 2017, not the 1950s.

Also, if there were not only more people of color in decision-making positions but also more people in general with different perspectives with an understanding of how cultural sensitivity and awareness combines with trends and branding, this problem would greatly improve.  And when I mean being in a decision-making position, I don’t mean the “Chief of Diversity” or some other BS token minority position with no actual power and never disagree with their white peers within today’s corporate environment.  I mean black, Asian, Hispanic and women executives with knowledge and awareness of history and culture who can say, “We can’t run this ad because it’s racist/sexist/homophobic etc.”

I have done work with some larger ad agencies as a subcontracting web graphics developer and I have encountered these racial dynamics in their workplaces, where their token black employee just goes along to get along and agrees with all the dumb ideas from their white co-workers.

So basically until workforce diversity improves, there will be more similar Dove commercials in the future.

A People Speak in 2017

I just started re-reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States for a book discussion series happening at my local library soon.  This is one of those types of books everyone has in their personal library but never gets around to reading because it is so long – nearly 800 pages!  This book discussion series is meant to get people to not only read but really think about how the book relates to issues going on in America today.  According to Zinn, American history is to a large extent the exploitation of the majority by an elite minority.

Zinn has left a great literary masterpiece behind for the rest of us to enjoy!

Don’t Be A Sucker in 2017

This video could have been made today because it is still so relevant.

This short film was made in 1947 by the U.S. War Department.  It was an effort to educate Americans that they would lose their country if they let fanaticism and hatred turn them into “suckers.”

“Let’s forget about ‘we’ and ‘they’ — let’s think about us!”

How is this any different from how Trump is running the country right now?

If you are a sucker in 2017, you’ll become Paris Dennard.

Should White People Tell Black Stories?

So I saw the movie Detroit a couple of weeks ago…

It’s not a horrible movie, BUT it was obvious from the very beginning of the film that director Katheryn Bigelow didn’t really have any black consultants in the room to tell her how to best tell this story with sensitivity and empathy.  I can understand the complaints from other black viewers.  This film brings up another conversation about whether white storytellers should tell black stories (or stories of other people of color for that matter).

I am of the belief that it doesn’t really matter what the skin color of the storyteller is; it is more important that the story is told with accuracy and respect.  However, with that said, a black storyteller is going to have a completely different perspective on a historical, racial event than a white storyteller.  This is why I think Bigelow fell short with this film.  Maybe if she consulted with some knowledgeable black folks during the filming process, maybe the film could have been better.

This is not to say that if the film was made by a black director, it would have been automatically much better and on point.  That black director could have been just as tone-deaf with the film.  Nonetheless, more times than not, black directors do black stories better because of the perspective.

Take for instance Spike Lee’s epic film Malcolm X, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.  There was a similar controversy during pre-production for this film.  Originally, white Canadian director Norman Jewison was to direct the film.  However, Lee and others in the black community protested that it should be made by a black director.  Lee succeeded and took over as director and rewrote the script in his vision with support from black consultants and people who actually knew the slain leader.  Coincidentally, some black leaders like Amiri Baraka were concerned about how Lee would make the film because he was a middle-class black man and Malcolm X represented inner-city, working-class blacks.

Lee also came up against budget restraints from Warner Bros who refused to increase funding for the film.  Luckily, some very wealthy black folks like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and Prince came through with funding so Lee could make the film he envisioned.  When it was time to promote the film, Lee requested to only be interviewed by black journalists.

At the end of the day, Malcolm X was a great film not just because a black director made it, but because it was great storytelling.  Before I first saw the film in the theater as a teenager, I didn’t know who Malcolm X was.  But after seeing it, I was inspired to learn more about his life and other black leaders.  While Norman Jewison did a great job directing In the Heat of the Night, I don’t think he would have been able to do justice to Malcolm X’s life because of the perspective.  Also, black folks are very protective of how our leaders are portrayed in the media, due to the long history of sanitizing and white washing black history in this country.  The black community was especially concerned about Malcolm X’s portrayal on film because of some of the controversial things he said about whites before leaving the Nation of Islam and if Jewison was going to make him look more sinister on film.  It mattered to have the right person who would handle his life story with care and accuracy.  I still catch Malcolm X whenever it comes on TV because it still stands the test of time and quality.

So going back to Bigelow’s Detroit, there was literally a problem with this film at the very beginning with an animated telling of the Great Migration.  I assume this was done to give viewers a background on the history of race in the Motor City.  But when I saw this, I thought it trivialized and diminished the story.  I wasn’t sure if I was about to watch a cartoon about a very serious, hurtful event.  Clearly, Bigelow had no black folks there to tell her “No, don’t do that.”

There was also the problem with John Boyega’s character, Melvin Dismukes, who was a security guard patrolling a supermarket who became like a peace negotiator at the Algiers Motel that night.  If you didn’t know anything about Dismukes or the Algiers Motel incident, you wouldn’t understand why he was even in the film.  But yet all the marketing for the film is focused on John Boyega, which is probably because he is the most well-known person in the film. But it still didn’t make any sense.  It would have been better if Bigelow spent more time explaining Dismukes’s background.

Then there is this whole issue of torture in the film.  Not surprised there was so much violence in it, as Bigelow is known for doing movies with lots of violence.  Some black viewers complained about the excessive, graphic depictions of torture by the white police officers.  However, if that level of violence is accurate to what really happened, then that is fine to show in my opinion.  Again, I’m not for sanitizing history.  Ironically, though, it seemed like the film’s violent treatment of the two white girls was less severe than was depicted in John Hersey’s book, which said that they were stripped completely naked and called n*gger lovers.  It was obvious that the black guys at the motel were not being tortured because of a possible gun or sniper in the building, but rather because they were with white women.  Something about the more violent punishments on black male bodies and no discussion on why one of the white women lied about Dismukes being a perpetrator turned off a lot of black viewers.

Maybe the real conversation we should be having here is how to get more qualified black directors and writers to create these black films. While #OscarSoWhite brought much-needed attention for more people of color in front of the cameras, we need to also focus on increasing diversity behind the cameras as well so there can be more balanced storytelling about us.