Why Black People are Overrepresented in Ads
Analysis of a phenomenon that's no longer possible to ignore
This is a Carousel guest piece by an anonymous writer
If you’ve watched any form of televised advertising in the past several years, you may have noticed substantial African-American representation. Neoliberal orthodoxy mandates it: the positive portrayal of a historically marginalized demographic. If only it were that simple.
We’d like to think that our modern institutions—whether they be governmental, corporate, or any other—restructure their output because of racial altruism, but this ignores the very nature of institutions and their goals in a capitalist system. There are few better illustrations of this conflict than advertising.
In The Evolution of Civilizations, American historian Carroll Quigley delineates the transformation of social instruments, formed to meet the needs of society, into institutions, whose sole purpose is to serve their own interests regardless of the societal need they were originally designed to address.(1) Take traffic laws: speed limits were developed to keep motorists safe; now, their main priority is precinct revenue generation, or worse, the meeting of a quota as an end to itself.(2)
What would Quigley have said about institutions created from inception to only meet their own needs? Though advertising agencies uniformly employ empty mission statements about the power of storytelling or true creativity or client service or whatever nonsense, their one true motive, like all businesses in a capitalist system, is to make money for themselves. One of the primary ways this is accomplished is by targeting certain demographics for specific products. Enter black people.
Overrepresentation by the Numbers
As early as 2000, authors Andrew Rojecki and Robert M. Entman found blacks to be overrepresented in television advertising in their book The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America. In their sample of 1,620 ads on major television networks, African Americans were in 32% of them.(3) And that was over 20 years ago. There certainly appears to have been a substantial increase in advertised black representation since then, although unfortunately few studies exist. One, dated 2017, specifically examines racial depictions in Nickelodeon advertising; it was discovered that blacks were overrepresented by a percentage point differential of 10.25%.(4) In television shows as opposed to advertising, black actors were overrepresented in total cast diversity for broadcast (18.0%) and cable shows (18.2%) in 2018–19, according to the Hollywood Diversity Report 2020.(5) The Center for Inquiry confirms this. Referencing a report by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, it states, “thus the GLAAD report found that, demographically, gays and Blacks are about accurately represented (or overrepresented) in TV.”(6)
Informal studies (printed in hotly debated op-eds) put the number of black overrepresentation in advertising today much higher. In an op-ed in the Arizona Republic, the author stated his count of blacks on television was 50%.(7) An article in The Washington Times states, “The sheer overrepresentation of blacks in ads poses another potential obstacle to greater equality and inclusion. While statistics are hard to come by, we can say with confidence that blacks appear far in excess of their 13 percent of the population — so much so that if a foreigner had nothing to go on but our ads, she might reasonably conclude that America is a majority-African-American country.”(8)
Regardless of the true percentage of overrepresentation in advertising, anything ranging from the 2000 number of 32% to current accusations of 50% is staggering given that the most recent census puts blacks at only 13% of the nation’s population.(9) On the surface, this makes little sense when considering the idea that advertisers are theoretically trying to reach as wide an audience as possible, and may be ignoring Hispanic, Asian, and white consumers.
Targeting Demographics by Race
There are countless examples of ad campaigns targeting specific racial demographics. Fast food chains have repeatedly taken fire for pushing unhealthy food on the black population.(11) More recently, a ban on menthol cigarettes was announced by the FDA, specifically because of the emphasis of their sale in black communities.(12) In a study titled “Tobacco Company Marketing to African Americans” by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, author Laura Bach states,
There is compelling evidence that tobacco companies not only advertise disproportionately in communities with large African-American populations, they also create advertising specifically targeted to these communities. Cigarette ads highly prevalent in African-American communities and publications are often characterized by slogans, relevant and specific messages, or images that have a great appeal among those in the black community or depict African Americans in an appealing light.(13)
If it's considered unfavorable that fast food and cigarette advertising are disproportionately aimed at black people, then why is the general overrepresentation of blacks in advertising not viewed through a similarly negative lens, complete with NGO-funded research and studies attached? Fatty foods and tobacco products are obviously bad for us, but spending outside of one’s means, going into debt, subjection to lifestyles that increase loneliness and unhappiness, and generally buying junk are equally bad for our health. Establishment reporting on the subject openly gives away the motive: “They recognize there is money involved” says Melanie Shreffler, editor of Marketing to the Emerging Majorities.(14) The increase in African American buying power is also mentioned. With this in mind, the very nature of modern capitalism must be examined.
Though published over fifty years ago, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle lays out a template for capitalism’s ability to morph as civilizational identities evolve. “... capitalism produced the first form of class power that acknowledges its own total lack of ontological quality—a power whose basis in the mere management of the economy reflects the loss of all human mastery.”(15) He elaborates on the lack of ontology by tracking society under capitalism transitioning from being to having and, in the “... present stage… a general shift from having to appearing.”(16) Albeit a sad realization, no one put it more concisely than Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation when he states, “It is not by chance that advertising, after having, for a long time, carried an implicit ultimatum of an economic kind, fundamentally saying and repeating incessantly, ‘I buy, I consume, I take pleasure,’ today repeats in other forms, ‘I vote, I participate, I am present, I am concerned’—mirror of a paradoxical mockery, mirror of the indifference of all public signification.”(17) Debord and Baudrillard’s mention of appearing and participation are crucial, for it illustrates that in order for the continued accumulation and growth of wealth, capitalism must give the appearance—while demanding societal participation—of prosperity, regardless of its baselessness. And baseless it is, especially when taking our nation’s wealth disparity into consideration. This culminates in “... increasingly extensive campaigns... necessary to convince people to buy increasingly unnecessary commodities.”(18)
Though capitalism’s current condition—as Debord saw it—does not explain the overrepresentation of African-Americans in advertising, his diagnosis of capitalism’s ability to subsume and commodify any and all sentiment outside its scope gives us some potential clues. In the fight for racial equality (which, at its ideological core, can be viewed as non-capital oriented), capitalism rapidly develops the capability to mine social justice movements, processes what useful raw material it extracts, and commodifies it for profit. If you get your news from outside the purview of legacy media outlets (and I pray that you do), you may have come across heretical memes that illustrate this point:
The more articulate argument again comes from Debord: “Complacent acceptance of the status quo may also coexist with purely spectacular rebelliousness—dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity as soon as the economy of abundance develops the capacity to process that raw material.”(19)
Another aspect of this puzzle to explore is the concept of the “magical negro.” A trope long used in the movie industry, this idea is defined by the planting of a black character using vaguely defined wisdom or mystical powers to teach or help a white protagonist (think the characters that Morgan Freeman plays). However, the ad world appears to be somewhat aware of this. In industry reporting on the subject, they stress “avoid(ing) tokenism” and “don’t force diversity” without offering any real metrics on how to avoid these faux pas’.(20) In his controversial article “Obama the ‘Magic Negro,’” David Ehrenstein compared then presidential candidate Barack Obama to the “magical negro” stereotype: “Like a comic-book superhero, Obama is there to help, out of the sheer goodness of a heart we need not know or understand. For as with all Magic Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes. If he were real, white America couldn’t project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him.”(21)
Though commercial actors don’t hold the sway of our 44th president, they serve a similar purpose. What is occurring in modern advertising and media writ-large is the usage of the black population as a meme for American consumerism and a representation of our society as a whole. In today’s age of race-based politics and social issues, these sentiments have been commodified by capital—symbolized by the advertising version of the magical negro—with the specific aim of selling people, especially blacks, more stuff they don’t need. Blacks comprising only 13% of the American population would seemingly render this idea silly, but as mentioned above, the ability of capitalism to co-opt organic sentiment and commodify it by way of “increasingly extensive campaigns'' has brought us to this current state of projecting a population that does not exist in the numbers or cultural milieu advertised.
Though the age of being “colorblind” to race is dead, aspects of this outlook could be beneficial to society as far as mitigating advertising’s exploitation of specific demographics. Using African Americans as a meme for consumerism in America is comparably detrimental to that community's well-being as fast food and tobacco is to their health. The marriage of ontologically-based identity politics with economic-based class politics has brought American society into an increasingly fake form of existence, and recognizing this is necessary to understanding capitalism’s impact on our society as a whole.
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1. Quigley, C. 1961. The Evolution of Civilizations. New York: Macmillan Company.
2. Anthropology professor Alexi Yurchak explores this notion with his concept of hypernormalization. Coined to describe the state reinforcement of baseless realities in the last decade of the Soviet Union, Yurchak focused on the linguistics of hypernormalized Soviet society where state rhetoric, which grew increasingly senseless, became true by merely stating it.
3. Entman, R., Rojecki, A. 2001. The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
4. Peruta, A., Powers, J. 2017. “Look Who’s Talking to Our Kids: Representations of Race and Gender in TV Commercials on Nickelodeon.” International Journal of Communication, July, pp. 1133–1148.
5. Hunt, D., Ramón, A. 2020. Hollywood Diversity Report 2020. Los Angeles: UCLA School of Social Sciences.
6. Radford, B. 2016. “A Closer Look at Media Diversity: Should TV Reflect Reality?” Center For Inquiry, April, https://centerforinquiry.org/blog/a_closer_look_at_media_diversity_should_tv_reflect_reality/.
7. MaGee, N. 2017. “Arizona Republic Runs Letter Claiming Too Many Blacks in TV Ads” Eurweb, November, https://eurweb.com/2017/11/05/arizona-republic-runs-letter-claiming-too-many-blacks-in-tv-ads/.
8. Gatsiounis, I. 2019. “When advertisers fetishize race: Depicting a sanitized racial utopia is unfamiliar to most Americans.” The Washington Times, December, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2019/dec/2/when-advertisers-fetishize-race/.
9. 2020 Census Demographic Map Viewer, https://www.census.gov/.
10. Vinjamuri, D. 2015. “Diversity In Advertising Is Good Marketing.” Forbes, December, https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidvinjamuri/2015/12/11/diversityinadsisgoodmarketing/?sh=1c4d000e4248
11. Jones, D. 2015. “Unhealthy Food Advertising Targets Black and Hispanic Youth.” UConn Today, August, https://today.uconn.edu/2015/08/unhealthy-food-advertising-targets-black-and-hispanic-youth/#
12. Erickson, B. 2021. “Biden administration announces it intends to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.” CBS News, April, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/menthol-cigarettes-biden-fda-ban/.
13. Bach, L. 2018. “Tobacco Company Marketing to African Americans.” Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, March, https://www.tobaccofreekids.org/assets/factsheets/0208.pdf.
14. Associated Press, 2009. “Race becomes more central to TV advertising.” NBC News, March, https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna29453960#.Wfng5kyZNZ0.
15. Debord, G. 2014. The Society of the Spectacle. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets.
16. Debord, G. 2014. The Society of the Spectacle. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets.
17. Baudrillard, J. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
18. Baudrillard, J. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
19. Debord, G. 2014. The Society of the Spectacle. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets.
20. 2020. “The Importance of Diversity in Advertising.” Creating Results, July, https://creatingresults.com/blog/2020/07/09/diversity-advertising/.
21. Ehrenstein, D. 2007. “Obama the ‘Magic Negro,’” Los Angeles Times, March, https://www.latimes.com/la-oe-ehrenstein19mar19-story.html.