Race in America: The Problem of Perpetually Racist Advertising

Advertising is no stranger to the propagation of racial stereotypes and the use of racist imagery. As far back as the early 1900s, marketers chose to represent individuals of color in ways that were far from respectful. One example is the advertisement for N.K. Fairbank Co. Fairy Soap, circa 1920 (see above). Notice the not-so-subtle messaging that to be Black is to be unclean, or in a broader sense, not worthy or less-than. From the same time period is this Jello print ad (see below). Here, a shabbily dressed Black boy delivers a Jello dessert to “milady,” resplendent in a fashionable gown, lounging on what appears to be her front porch, “on the plantation.” The boy seems to represent a working class subservient to a white upper class.

Fast-forward to 2012, where actor Ashton Kutcher (in brown face) portrayed a fictional Indian character named “Raj” in a series of ads for Pop Chips (see below). Seemingly intended to be viral campaign, the ads were pulled (from YouTube and other platforms) after they were criticized in the media. Here, ads perpetuated stereotypes of a different sort, this time of people of Indian descent.

Racism in advertising has been covered on Media Ethics Report before: One case is the “racist” ad run by PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew brand that seemed to portray Black men as criminals capable of assaulting white women (see “Racism, Advertising and the Selling of Soda”). Another example is a Heineken ad, perhaps more subtle, in which a glass of beer is slid across a bar by a bartender, past two Black women, only to wind up in the hands of a white woman (see “Heineken Pulls “Purposely Racist” Ad Amid Backlash“).

To see how racist advertising has changed over time (or perhaps how little it has changed), take a close look at the “Timeline of Racist Advertising!” published by DesignMatic.com (see below). That it is possible to even put together such a timeline is telling. Given the strides taken over the years to achieve racial justice and racial equity, it makes one wonder why such ads seem to surface with some frequency. It poses the question: “Why?” Even in 2018, H&M came under fire for selling “Monkey in the Jungle” sweatshirts (see “H&M slammed as racist for ‘monkey in the jungle’ hoodie”). Why does such advertising continue to persist? And more importantly, what–if anything–can be done about it? Why is it that marketers seem to be perpetually tone deaf to racist messages in their advertising?

‘A Rose is a Rose:’ Protesters, Rioters, Neo-Nazis and the Alt-Right

In “Romeo and Juliet,” Juliet opines “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” What Shakespeare seems to tell us is that words matter. So too do they matter in reporting, particularly in reporting on protests, rallies, demonstrations, and riots in which race is implicated. In this kind of reporting, how journalists frame participants can shape how the public views them and the causes they support. This is due to the normative baggage that each descriptor may carry. We may, for example, be more sympathetic to “protesters” than to “rioters;” or more supportive of the “alt-right” than to “neo-Nazis.” Thus, to be transparent and unbiased, journalists must be careful in their uses of such meaning-laden terms.

One recent study of Texas newspapers reveals the problems of using loaded terminology. Danielle Kilgo and Summer Harlow examined 777 articles written by journalists in 20 different Texas newsrooms (see “Riot or resistance? The way the media frames the unrest in Minneapolis will shape the public’s view of protest”). Looking at how articles framed protests in the headline, opening sentence, and story structure, they classified the reporting using four frames of protest: riot (wherein reporting emphasized disruptive behavior); confrontation (reporting that described protests as combative, focusing on arrests); spectacle (reporting that focused on apparel, signs or emotional behavior of protesters); and legitimizing (where reporting substantially mentioned protester’s demands, goals and grievances). Kilgo and Harlow found that Texas reporters were more likely to write positively about protests related to health and immigration, and more likely to write negatively about protests related to anti-black racism and the Dakota pipeline (see below).

Harlow found a similar pattern in her own research of 1,500 protest-related news stories published throughout 2014 in mainstream, alternative, partisan and online news publications (see “There’s a double-standard in how news media cover liberal and conservative protests”). “Articles about conservative protests,” she writes, “like protests opposed to immigration or LGBT rights, or protests supporting Trump and gun rights––[were] less likely to be negatively framed as ‘riots’ than other types of protests. In contrast, Black Lives Matter protests [were] more likely to be framed as riots, as news coverage focuse[d] more on violence, property damage and confrontations with police.” Although Harlow’s reporting is framed in political terms as liberal versus conservative, her reference to how BLM protests tended to be framed is telling: protests involving anti-black racism were not good.

The same semantic difficulties can be seen in reporting dealing with white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups. Issie Lapowski writes that reporting that frames white supremacist groups as among the “alt-right” seems to soften them by obscuring ideologies that might otherwise be unpalatable (see “New Media and the Messy Nature of Reporting on the Alt-Right”). Referring to such groups as “neo-Nazis” on the other hand, Lapowski seems to suggest, might make them less endearing to readers and less worthy of support. Of course, as J.M. Berger points out, there may be fundamental differences between the alt-right and neo-Nazis in the first place, so journalists wishing to demonstrate “analytical utility” would likely need to use the two terms differently anyway (see “Calling Them Nazis”). Regardless, even the Associated Press has seen the need for journalists to be more precise when reporting on racially sensitive groups including white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and the alt-right, presumably for the possible effects that such loaded terminology may have on shaping public opinion (see “Writing about the ‘alt-right’”).

It must be said that without conducting focused research on how such racially charged language may influence public perceptions of race and racial issues, the true impact of this kind of reporting will not be known. However, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that such framing must have some effect on public opinion. After all, consumers of news––as human beings––can be quite pliable, if not completely suggestible. For journalists interested in producing truly transparent and unbiased reporting, it seems the moral mandate is to recognize that words, like calling a rose a rose, do matter.

Editor’s Note (March 31, 2021): In class discussion today, we learned that–based on the 2018 edition of the AP Style Guide–the AP does not offer guidance on how to use such terms as “terrorism” or “domestic terrorism” and only vague, recently published guidance on use of the word “insurrection” (see “How to describe the events at the U.S. Capitol”).