In a Census Year, Representation Matters

We know representation in media matters. In Horowitz’s latest State of Consumer Engagement 2019 study, more than half (55%) of multicultural consumers said it would have a positive impact on their intent to purchase from a company if it featured people of their race/ethnicity in their advertising, and six in 10 (57%) said it would have a positive impact if a company’s ads represented their culture or lifestyle.

Census 2020 will begin in just a few short weeks, on April 1. Even before the numbers start rolling in, there’s one census finding that won’t be a surprise: The U.S. population is becoming even more multicultural and less white than ever before. This means it is more important than ever for the media industry and its advertisers to learn how to connect with American audiences in more nuanced, sophisticated and culturally attuned ways.

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

High-profile faux pas by companies like Dove, Nivea, H&M, Gucci and others underscore the damage that a racially insensitive creative decision can do to a brand. On the other hand, companies like Nike, Xfinity, Google, Apple, P&G and Coca-Cola have shown by example that great, inclusive, culturally resonant creative can deliver on multiple fronts, including creating goodwill, helping shift negative perceptions and adding to a company’s bottom line.

As the diversity and representation conversation evolves, one issue that looms large is colorism. Colorism — the practice of favoring lighter-skinned people of color over those who are darker-skinned — is rampant across all forms of media, especially when casting people of color in general market content and advertising.

On many levels, colorism is problematic. It is also not that effective. Horowitz has begun analyzing survey data based on skin tone (self-assessed based on an image) to better understand the impact of colorism on consumers. Horowitz’s recent State of Consumer Engagement 2019 study 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 African-Americans in a company's advertising, it makes them feel like the company cares about them (43% vs. 26% of medium-skinned). In other words, darker-skinned black consumers are more likely to feel that the ad 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. Some might think that casting racially ambiguous talent could do double duty by checking off more than one diversity box. But is it really pragmatism at play in deciding to cast lighter-skinned people, or something else? To answer that question, we must unpack and contextualize societal notions of race and color.

Cultural anthropologists and biologists have long asserted that there is, in fact, no such thing as race. The classification of people into categories based on skin tone is a societal structure, not a biological one. Indeed, skin tones exist on a spectrum.

The binary classification of people into racialized classifications 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, all without biological justification.

Legal and institutional structures were built around these racialized classifications which, in turn, perpetuated those underlying biases for whiteness and against darkness. There were (and still are) many examples of structural discrimination. Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation and discrimination in the South from the end of the Reconstruction era until well into the 1950s. The Federal Housing Authority enacted policies that redlined African-American neighborhoods, precluding blacks from getting FHAbacked mortgages from the 1930s until the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968. Blacks were systemically barred from institutions of higher education, leading to numerous lawsuits. Stop and frisk and other racial-profiling-based policing policies are still widely implemented today.

Moreover, 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 to darkness and its associated features and traits. Indeed, blackness was often “whitewashed” or rendered invisible in the arts. Given all the privileges of whiteness, colorism even took root within many racial and ethnic groups themselves, with lighter skin symbolizing higher social status and being deemed more desirable. Some who could, chose to “pass” for white.

Unpacking Biases

The racialized classification of people is so enmeshed in the fabric of American society that many of us unwittingly help perpetuate it. This is known as implicit bias: the unconscious preference for people with lighter skin over people with darker skin. This permeates virtually all aspects of American life, including media and advertising.

People of color — especially young people of color — are realizing their social, political, economic and cultural empowerment. They are flexing their economic muscle to support brands that are committed to them: Six in 10 African-American (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 2020, brands’ success hinges on connecting with America’s increasingly diverse general market and in order to connect, brands must step it up. Playing it safe is not going to cut it anymore.