Saturday, March 21, 2009

struggle with diversity in advertising

I know very little about what goes on behind the scenes of advertising campaigns. I also don't know how diverse American advertising firms and departments have become these days.

However, it seem to me that if a product is not marketed to a specific non-white audience, then the advertisers still consistently place middle-class, heterosexual white people in the middle of things. Non-white characters still occupy the margins, occasionally entering center-stage to interact with the white characters, usually in order to spice up things a bit.

Sometimes, in these ads that are not overtly targeted to a specific racial demographic, the non-white characters do spend a lot of time on center-stage, fully interacting on a seemingly equal level with the white characters. These forced, ostensibly colorblind scenarios can easily become racially overloaded train wrecks, like the following Old Navy ad, which is part of their current "Supermodelquins" campaign.

Do you suppose the makers of this ad thought much at all about sexism and racism in advertising? Or about the history of hypersexualized representations of "aggressive" black women? Or about the "white male gaze," and the abusive, sexually charged power that white men long wielded, over white women, black women, and black men?

I imagine that at some point, someone working on this campaign may have said something like, "Okay, this is risky, kinda risqué, right? Attention getting! But, one thing we cannot do is have the white woman naked with the black guy looking at her!" That would have been different; but would it have been any worse?

For more clues about what was on the minds of the makers of this ad, and of the other ads in the Supermodelquin campaign, here's a sort of featurette that provides some backstory for each character:

What do you think? Is this enlightened, multiculturally aware marketing? Or more of the same old clueless recirculation of hoary racist and sexist stereotypes? Or something else?

[h/t: Nazeen Patel @]

Update: In a recent blog post and in a follow-up post, Harry Allen offers some insightful analysis of this Old Navy ad in the contexts of a history of white abuse of black women, and of ongoing manifestations of that history in Western media images. As Allen writes, "the line from the auction block to the display stand is unbroken." (Thank you Judith!) Also, see Tolu Olorunda's response at The Daily Voice.


  1. i think its the same cycle. i remember first viewing these commercials with distaste, but then when i saw this one i was speechless. everything about this ad is frustrating: the disembodied legs sticking out from a box (an "extra pair") and the fact that another woman is jealous of the legs in the first place, thinking hers are inadequate compared to the white mannequins (more women policing each others bodies, ugh!). then, of all the mannequins, the black woman gets her dress taken by what appears to be a real white woman. then the white guy is all "sweet!" as mannequins, they're all objects, but only the women are parted out in this one, and a woman ends up naked. all to sell some stupid dresses.

  2. I think the main underlying current that makes me uncomfortable here is the sexism. No matter what racial combination here, even if they were all of the same race (though that it was white male gaze on black woman's body made it worse), it's still the commodification women's bodies which is everywhere in the media.

    If it had been a woman gazing on a naked man, would it have been better? I think it'd be an improvement on things, giving women a break. Which racial combination of woman gazing at man would not be problematic, if any? Though when I comes down to it, I think using nudity to sell things is degrading.

  3. I think we're reading a bit too much into this. To assume that this "guy" automatically assumed the "white male gaze" when viewing a nude black female is a stretch, to say nothing of the concept itself. All we know is that he said, "sweet!", which obviously indicates sexual objectification, but not necessarily racial objectification. Likewise the comment about the first mannequin's legs is probably more used as a vehicle for a pun about their being mannequins than a comment about black women feeling aesthetically inferior to white women.

    Now, we can also look at her reaction to being objectified. She fights back, saying "what, you've never seen plastic before?"

    Ignoring what could be a stretch at calling this a comment on women being seen as plastic dolls or some such thing, she is indeed reacting to being objectified, and makes a comment intended to point out this man's childish reaction at seeing naked girlie parts.

  4. Wesley is a crash test dummy? A black mannequin can't even get a good job?

    I thought the narrator introduced Eva as an assassin and thought okay, this story is going somewhere! But he said sassy.

    White male gaze part was gross.

  5. @Its all just a ride:
    i absolutely love it when someone points out that i'm "looking too much" into something. it's along the same lines as people telling me i'm too sensitive when i'm brave enough to call out racist and sexist things.

    at any rate, i could let the disembodied legs go since they're just mannequins; however, women's bodies are parted out again ( and again ( and again (
    so don't tell me i'm looking too much into it when there's evidence of this sort of sexism EVERYWHERE.

    as for the white male gaze, it may not have occurred to you that this mannequin is a white male, therefore anything he looks at will be through the white male lens--it's not something you can turn off, and if you want to argue this point, i challenge you to prove how one can turn off their white maleness--probably no more simply than i can turn off my white femaleness.

    as for her "fighting back," well, that just makes up for all the sexism and racism right? i mean, she's just being sassy (do i really need to say it??).

  6. @its all about the ride
    To assume that this "guy" automatically assumed the "white male gaze" when viewing a nude black female is a stretch, to say nothing of the concept itself. All we know is that he said, "sweet!", which obviously indicates sexual objectification, but not necessarily racial objectification.

    Really an assumption is it? Well let me tell you as a black woman that the white male gaze is often problematic and overtly sexual. It is a major part of the reason that black women continue to be devalued and understood as nothing but wet holes for pleasure. Watch an evening of television and what you will see are black women playing hookers and the so-called "other woman" The Black female identity is conflated with Jezebel for a reason. It is not accidental that the black woman was the one disrobed when we consider that in the history of race and gender relations it is the black woman that has never been allowed the any kind of bodily integrity.

  7. This subject brings up things that my roommate and her friend argue about. Her friend can see all the errors in most of the commercials when it comes to race and minorities.

    She is african american, and I agree with her view sometimes. The fact that black women are always lighter than the men or just things that seem racially motived. But, my roommate, who is biracial( black and white) doesn't seem to see it at all.

    She grew up in an all white neighborhood, and have been conditioned into whiteness or just to ignore things like this blog or such. It really bothers me alot.

    So, Macon D, can a person who is non-white or just half white be able to be condition in to 'whiteness' if they live in an all white town?

  8. Yes, Chrissy, I think so, and it doesn't take living in an all-white town for that to happen. It seems to me that just about everyone in the U.S. is conditioned to some degree into whiteness, because it's so pervasive and insidious. It's "doxic," in sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's terms. It "goes without saying because it comes without saying."

    I wonder if that black-woman mannequin is colored lighter than the one that's supposed to be her husband . . .

  9. *sigh*

    OK, let's have at this again.

    Renee: Why did you feel the need to purposefully misspell my name as "its all ABOUT THE ride"?

    Re: "the white male gaze" once again - If you institutionalize a term like "the white male gaze" and ascribe it the properties of being "problematic and overtly sexual" then you have assumed a deterministic viewpoint based on the sex of the viewer, and a negative one at that when calling it "problematic". Thus, the term is an institutionalized form of sexism and negative stereotyping. It is no different then "scientists" from the 18th century using phrenetics to label entire races as violent, stupid, etc.

    What if you came up to me and asked, "which hip-hop artist is your favorite?" and i replied, "sorry, I don't care for black music." Calling that a racist statement would have more than a little bit of credibility to it. Similarly, instantly labeling any view of another person that takes the form of sexual objectification as "the white male gaze" is sexist.

    If you disagree then at least do me this favor: what are the characteristics of the following:

    -white male gaze
    -white female gaze
    -black male gaze
    -black female gaze
    -asian male gaze
    -asian male from tokyo who listens to american rap music and likes cats and reading poems by Rumi gaze

    If you can't do that then the entire premise of labeling "the white male gaze" is meaningless and useless as an intellectual or academic exercise, because it renders the terms themselves void of meaning.

    Part 2:

    Chrissy, you say that:

    "Her friend can see all the errors in most of the commercials when it comes to race and minorities."

    "But, my roommate, who is biracial( black and white) doesn't seem to see it at all."

    From this it is clear that you have already decided that one party is right and another is completely wrong, and refuse to acknowledge any simple difference in interpretation on the part of either party.

    You see one thing, and if another person does not see it exactly the same then they are wrong, and the only remaining step is to figure out why they "just don't get it".

  10. *sigh*

    Yes, I did say that she doesn't see everything, because she really doesn't. I agree with some of her ideas along with the other girl's.
    She admitted to not really understand her black side because of family problems and living in a small town that is all white.

    But, I never said that I agree with everything the other girl said.
    "She is african american, and I agree with her view sometimes."

    Everyone has their own opinions, I know this, my roommate and I are too opinionated on our views of things. I don't nessarily agree with everything that you wrote, but I'm not bothering you about it.

  11. Its All Just A Ride, I of course hope that Renee will answer you if she likes, but you're making me wonder--aren't you' being sort of a seeing-eye frog here, especially in your first comment above (whether or not you're actually white)?

    As for your name, has Renee mistyped it elsewhere? If not, why are you so sure that was purposeful? (And since we're on the topic, why did you leave out an apostrophe in the sentence that is your name?)

    It's odd that you make a plea for individualized interpretation of advertising, and yet, you wrote in your first comment, "All we know is that he said, 'sweet!', which obviously indicates sexual objectification, but not necessarily racial objectification."

    Why is one a given, but the other isn't? By your individualized standard, couldn't someone say, "No, to me 'sweet!' just means that he thinks she's a sweet, kind person"? If the sexism is apparent because she's female and he's male, then why isn't racism apparent because she's black and he's white?

    I actually agree that the sexual objectification is obvious to me as a male, and that's because the general feminist understanding about the ills of sexist objectification has reached me; however, as a white person who has listened to the general anti-racist message about the ill's of a possessive white male gaze, the ad's evocation of racist objectification (and subjugation), however seemingly intentional or not on anyone's part (including the mannequin's), is also pretty obvious.

  12. Chrissy:

    I'm sorry if that came off as some kind of attack or something. I didn't mean it as such. It's simply that it related to the overall vibe that seems to be prevalent on this thread that if someone doesn't see validity in the overly deconstructed interpretations that are being thrown around then they simply must not see them or "just don't get it".

  13. Macon,

    It's simply far too easy to say that if someone doesn't find validity in your interpretation then they must not be looking hard enough, are blind due to cultural conditioning, or are just being a "seeing eye frog". The difference between the example in the link with the definition of "seeing eye frog" and this is that I can see where these deconstructed interpretations come from, and why they are seemingly valid to some, just that they are far too obtuse and are perfect examples where people love to accept the most "deep" and complicated explanations for things that sometimes just are.

    If I sometimes favor simple explanations for things like this advert more plausible than ones that require awkward mental gymnastics to accept, should I do so knowing that I will merely be disregarded with a wave of the hand and a "oh you're just a seeing-eye frog" comment?

    This is why I asked if FilthyGranduer even accepts the proposition that a person COULD over-interpret a situation. Because if not then there is no continuing with whether or not one of is is over or under-reacting.

    Also, I see that that comment has mysteriously disappeared for reasons unknown since it had no foul or abusive language.

  14. IAJAR, I think instead that it's simply far too easy for you to reject a more complex interpretation simply because it calls for what you see as awkward mental gymnastics. It seems to me that instead of some of us here seeing something that "just isn't there," it's you who's not seeing something that it is "there," in the racialized implications that emanate from this ad because of its sociohistorical context. Just because your radar isn't attuned to those implications at a conscious level doesn't mean that they're not there.

    My characterization of your stance here as that of a seeing-eye frog is not a mere, dismissive, hand-waving gesture. Rather, it's a way of pointing out how your own reaction to another racially oriented/informed point of view is itself a hand-waving dismissal (and a patronizing one at that).

    As for your supposedly disappeared comment, I haven't disallowed any comments by you. Perhaps it just didn't go through.

  15. I find it even more disturbing that the black female mannequin is supposed to be a mother, but isn't shaken up at being disrobed and openly oggled by some other guy in front of her husband and child...

  16. "Just because your radar isn't attuned to those implications at a conscious level doesn't mean that they're not there."

    But that's just it, I see that they COULD be there, based on the history of race relations in this context, just that to assume that they ARE there relies on too many assumptions about what is going on inside the mind of a fictional character in the span of a half-second sound byte.

    He said, "Sweet!", not "Sweet! A naked black woman!" His elation at seeing a naked woman is obvious to almost anyone, but reading some kind of racial fetishism or subjugation into it seems TO ME to be a stretch since it relies on assumptions.

    Do I agree that you CAN see racial implications? Yes, of course, if you're looking for racism then you'll find racism in many places. FilthyGranduer's first response to my honest suggestion implies that she finds herself unable to ever be guilty of such a thing. I think it would be hard for someone to come to such a conclusion if they didn't think it impossible for ANYONE to do so.

  17. @IAJAR:
    certainly someone can over interpret something, but over interpretation means that you're going beyond what is there.

    what is there is the racial coding, the white male gaze, the black woman being disrobed. for me to over interpret something it would have to include something that isn't there.

  18. So what are we to make of the dog's reaction? What is the canine gaze on a black woman? Does this mirror the inherent bestial nature of the white male gaze?

  19. Now you're getting obnoxious. Knock it off--we get your point.

  20. Just thought I'd try a little levity.

  21. For me, this brought back flashbacks of the Superbowl half time where Justin Timberlake partially disrobed Janet Jackson. This add is on TV all the time, and the first viewing I didn't think much of it, but the more I would see it the more I'd think "why is it the one black mannequin that gets her clothes taken?" and then the Janet Jackson parallel. The white male gaze hadn't occurred to me though.

  22. I encourage everyone to read Harry Allens comments at the following sites.

    When you see the second ad you can see the trend even more clearly.
    I'm with you Filthy, We aren't reading too much into it, we usually don't read enough into it.

  23. Thank you Judith, I hadn't seen those pieces of insightful analysis. I'm going to add links to them to this post.

  24. What about the idea that 50 years ago a white man eying a black female with open sexual delight would have elicited skreeds about the evils of miscegenation? In that light couldn't these ads be seen as attempts at redefining sexuality between different races as non-threatening?

  25. What about the idea that 50 years ago a white man eying a black female with open sexual delight would have elicited skreeds about the evils of miscegenation? In that light couldn't these ads be seen as attempts at redefining sexuality between different races as non-threatening?
    So, a white man sexually objectifying a black women in public w/o any negative consequence being visited apon him is now considered totes progressive?


  26. Roxie:

    I never said it wasn't still a crude and sexist attempt at being racially progressive.

    The fact is, most of the people buying clothes from Old Navy are thoroughly soaked in MTV generation sexism. It isn't a big deal for them. So the objectification probably has little effect on anyone who Old Navy cares about in their ads, but racially speaking the generation that they pander to IS conscious (Old Navy markets heavily to cash-strapped college students and older high schoolers), and they'd be more likely to interpret this as a forced attempt at racial inclusion than as a deviously subversive attempt to paint black women as without agency (none of them have agency, they're mannequins) or some such thing.

    It reminds me more of 90's era cartoons that took great lengths to have diverse casts, but fell flat because they were all token stereotypes, which made the attempt completely transparent.

  27. Macon D,

    What if the creators of this ad campaign were being nothing more than "progressives?" After all, this is the kind of stuff that "progressives" do by definition. "Progressives" think outside the box, disregard tradition and the status quo and certainly aren't browbeaten into conformist thinking.

    What if this ad campaign was NOTHING MORE than "progressivism" in action? Why would "effects" matter?

    Is "progressivism" now to be seen as racism or are you attempting to stifle "progressive" thought and action? Are you attempting to temper your "progressivism" with an idea of restraint and self-censorship?

    Or, are you going to convince us that this ad campaign was the work of some "conservative" corporate white people intending to do racist things?

  28. i think more than a few people are missing the point. this is just yet another example of how black women are sexualized into an exotic "other." this sort of belief was used to justify the rape and oppression of black women during slavery, and even after as society projected the black woman as hypersexualized, as are black men. this goes beyond mere objectification. it's downright racist because it connotes the same old racist imagery that existed 50 or a 100 years ago, and are still present.

  29. Two thoughts.
    One, most white people need to begin with the assumption they can't see it and try to. You can end up disagreeing, but really, we are so blind and if you care about eliminating racism getting educated is our first task.
    So a good question might be....What if they are right. What if what Harry says in his blog is correct? Is that ok with you? is that who you want to be?

    Intent and Impact are two different things. You don't have to villify the one doing harm to acknowledge the harm.
    I'm less concerned with the intent than the impact.

  30. Judith,

    One, most white people need to begin with the assumption they can't see it and try to.

    How come that argument doesn't work for atheists?

  31. Well, it could. I think it depends on whether you are interested in really understanding someone else's perspective.
    I've applied it to lots of positions, beliefs etc that I don't immediately understand either intuitively or through my life experience.
    I find that beginning with the proposition that what people believe is true for them, then trying to understand what it means to them enlarges my understanding.

  32. "How come that argument doesn't work for atheists?"

    1. Most white people recognize, at the very least, that racism exist[s/ed] in certain places and at certain times. There is lots of solid evidence for the existence of racism. Not so much for the existence of God.

    2. Christians are not a minority group, and it would be very hard to argue that they are oppressed. In the US and other western countries, Christian beliefs often become law despite claims that the gov't is secular. (See: the debates over gay marriage, abortion, etc.) If anything, it's the atheists who are oppressed by having religious-based morality forced upon them in this way.

  33. Okay, I know there are conversations on a zillion different threads right now and this is an old one, but seriously, has anyone else seen Taco Bell's new "Black Jack taco" ad?

    It basically shows a bunch of clips of black things--"black hat" "black chair" "black eye" "black dress" etc--and then finally, "Black Jack taco," which is a taco with a black shell. ::shudders::

    So the actors in the ad?

    All white.

    Stuff white people do: advertise black Mexican food with white people.


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