Commercials / Advertisements

African American Beauty in Media

Although, this blog is dedicated to the black experience presented on film, I decided to take a commercial break (literally) and address other media representations of blacks in advertisements after reading a few excerpts from Style & Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920 – 1975 by Susannah Walker.

From the 1920s to 1970s, black advertising viewed beauty culture as both the source of black consumer power and black entrepreneurship potential. For example market researchers Claude Barnett and David Sullivan called for greater recognition of Black consumers by white advertisers but at the same time criticized white companies that entered the Black beauty culture business (Walker 207). 

Then starting in the 1920s/ 1930s white companies increased their presence in the Black beauty market and they eventually took hold of  black corporations such as L’Oreal purchasing Soft Sheen in 1998 and Carson in 2000 (Walker 209).

But even though blacks have now proven that they are consumers to the white-owned industries, how do these industries really see the black consumer.  It does not mean they are catering to black consumers. In fact, the inclusion of blacks in advertising and marketing strategies is just another way to sell blacks to whites.

In 2005, L’Oreal ran a campaign using Beyonce to advertise their new Feria hair color. However, the ad faced a lot of controversy as the ad in magazines such as Elle, which cater to white audiences, featured a white-looking Beyonce. While in magazines catered to black audiences such as Essence the ad of Beyonce was not as pale. Also her nose looks more defined in the Elle ad as well. L’Oreal denied that her features or her skin tone was retouched.

But it put a focus on the fact that the use of a black face does mean they are appealing to black consumers. In fact, black consumers are still not fully accepted in the white economy as Barnett and Sullivan once imagined, as the photo of Beyonce in Essence was not run in both the black and white magazine. Also, their call for separate advertisements for blacks actually backfired in that it used skin-lightening on behalf of the black women to offer a separate more preferable advertisement to whites.

Advertisement in Essence (left). Advertisement in Elle (right)

But was this is not first time L’Oreal has gone out of its way to make sure its products are promoted by lighter skinned women. In 2007, L’Oreal was found guilty of racial discrimination in France for hiring only white salesgirls to push its Garnier Fructis. In July 2000, a fax detailing the profile of hostesses sought by L’Oreal stipulated women should be 18 to 22, size 38-42 (UK size 10-14) and “BBR”, the initials for bleu, blanc, rouge, the colours of the French flag. Prosecutors argued that BBR, a shorthand used by the far right, was also a well-known code among employers to mean “white” French people and not those of North African, African and Asian backgrounds.

Skin lightening of black women in photos is not just reserved for advertising to appeal to white consumers, but it was also for magazine covers as well. In 2009, the New York Daily News and the Insider felt that Halle Berry looked “suspiciously airbrushed – and much older than usual – on the bubble-gum pink cover” of Bazaar magazine. And some felt that her cheekbones were slimmed down and her face was slimmed. (shot by British photographer from England)

This white-washing of black women is not only apparent in the change of skin-color but it is also shown in the retouching of body proportions of black women. For example, in 1989, TV Guide featured a photo of Oprah Winfrey. But the head of Oprah is attached to Ann Margaret’s body. Ann Margaret was a Swedish-American actress, singer, and dancer.

Skin lightening is not just a tool used to make black women appeal to white consumers but is also used on other minorities. For example, in 2009, Frieda Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire actress and Indian woman was featured in Vanity Fair magazine. But Frieda’s appearance looks much paler so that you can not distinguish that she is Indian. (photographed by Micaela Rossato).

While black women are being lightened, black men are being darkened for mainstream magazines to appeal to a certain image for its white consumers. For example, in 1994, for O.J. Simpson, Time magazine darkened his mug shot, while rival Newsweek left the image alone. Time magazine’s mugshot of O.J. Simpson gave viewers a more threatening and darker image of a black man. (Time credited by Matt Mahurin)

But black men are not just darkened in photos, but images of men are also made to resemble white stereotypes and ideals. In 2008, Vogue featured its first black man ever to grace its cover, Lebron James along with Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen. But the picture replicates racist stereotypes of that found in the image of King Kong. This image on the left is a World War I propaganda poster for enlistment in the US Army and it was created in 1917.

The film King Kong was released in a 1933 film and it is about a film crew goes to a tropical island for an exotic location shoot and discovers a colossal giant gorilla who takes a shine to their female blonde star. However, an interpretation of the film is that King Kong represents white society’s fear of black male sexuality which tries to take hold of the white female.

The similarities are obvious in these pictures. Lebron James has never found fault with the image reporting “It wasn’t a situation we’re being rough or looking mean,” James tells the Plain-Dealer in Cleveland. “Just showing a little emotion. We had a few looks, and that was the best one we had … Everything my name is on is going to be criticized in a good way or bad way. Who cares what anyone says?” Also, this picture was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, a white female.

After looking over these photographs, I realized that black women and black men were often the ones whose image was being altered to fit to the concept of white mainstream magazines. If whites were ever altered, most of the time it just involved making the celebrity looking younger or thinner. White celebrities, who were extremely pale, were only given the appearance of a tan but nothing severe. Therefore, it looked as if the images of blacks were being exploited to fit to white-owned magazines. I questioned if whites would ever be the ones to undergo the same photo retouching and manipulating to serve black audiences?

Then I stumbled upon this image of Kate Moss who is a British model appeared in British newspaper The Independent in 2006. The Independent is a British newspaper published by Alexander Lebedev’s, a Russian businessman. This is issue is known as The Red Independent and supports U2’s lead singer Bono’s Product Red and give half the day’s proceeds to Global Fund to Fight Aids. So this is known as The Independent’s Africa issue but fails to put a woman of African descent on the cover. Also, it is not clear as to whether the newspaper is trying to appeal to white or black consumers.

Therefore, I question that even though the beauty culture has created a black consumer, when white-owned companies take over black beauty businesses and make products for blacks or include blacks in their advertisement, I still do not think that this black consumer ever really exists. Everything is really about appealing to white consumers.


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