Colorism -- The Elephant In The Advertising Room

We know that representation in media matters. In Horowitz Research’s latest State of Consumer Engagement 2019 study, 55% of multicultural consumers said it would have a positive impact on their intent to purchase if the company featured people of their race/ethnicity in their advertising.

But executing nuanced, sophisticated, culturally attuned creative is not as straightforward as it seems.

High-profile faux pas by companies like Dove, Nivea, H&M, and Gucci underscore the damage that racially insensitive creative decisions can do. On the other hand, companies like Nike, Xfinity, Google, Apple, P&G, and Coca-Cola have shown that culturally resonant creative can create goodwill, help shift negative perceptions, and add to the bottom line.

As the diversity conversation evolves, one issue that looms large is colorism -- the practice of favoring lighter-skinned people of color over those who are darker-skinned. It is rampant across all media, especially when casting people of color in “mainstream” advertising.



On many levels, colorism is problematic. It is also not that effective. The Horowitz research reveals that Blacks with darker skin are more likely to feel that the advertising industry ignores them (36% vs. 25% of medium skinned), but more likely to say that when they see Black people in a company's advertising, it makes them feel like the company cares (43% vs. 26% of medium-skinned).

In other words, darker-skinned Black consumers are more likely to feel that the advertising industry ignores them compared to their lighter-skinned counterparts…but are more likely to react positively to representation.

The rationale for casting lighter-skinned, less ethnic-looking talent is often justified by pragmatism. Casting someone who is dark enough is a safer choice than casting someone who looks too dark and might alienate some consumers. Lighter-skinned, racially ambiguous characters might even do double duty, checking both the Black and Hispanic “diversity boxes.”

But is it really pragmatism to mainly cast lighter-skinned people, or is it a form of implicit bias? To answer that question, we must unpack why it is that the choice to cast a lighter-skinned person of color is deemed “safer” than casting someone who is darker-skinned.

Throughout history, the binary classification of people into racialized categories by skin color has been used to justify granting rights and privileges to some, while denying them from others.

Positive traits and characteristics were generally assigned to lighter-skinned “races,” while negative ones were generally assigned to those with darker skin, without biological justification.

Colorism even took root within many racial and ethnic groups themselves, with lighter skin symbolizing higher social status and being deemed more desirable.

Social and institutional structures were built around these classifications. Representations of attractiveness and beauty in the arts reinforced the idea that whiteness and all the features and traits assigned to it were superior and more desirable than darkness and its associated features and traits.

The racialized classification of people is so enmeshed in the fabric of American society that many of us unwittingly help perpetuate it.

This is an example of implicit bias: an unconscious preference for people with lighter skin over people with darker skin. This permeates virtually all aspects of American life, including media and advertising, and is at play in those “pragmatic” decisions to cast racially ambiguous talent.

As people of color -- especially young people of color -- realize their social, political, economic, and cultural empowerment, they are flexing their economic muscle to support brands that are committed to them.

Six in 10 Black (61%) and Hispanic (61%) consumers say they are more likely to patronize companies that embrace and support their community. They are also pushing back against all forms of racism, implicit or otherwise. This includes calling out colorism in all its manifestations.

As we move into the 2020s, brand success will hinge on connecting with America’s diverse marketplace.

It's time for the media and advertising industry to examine its own implicit biases and embrace the full spectrum of America’s diversity

Next story loading loading..