Advertising must become ‘the change it claims it wants to see’: Uncomfortable Conversations

How did you get into advertising and why?

I was lost for a long time when it came to choosing a career. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college and I paid for it through financial aid and student loans, so I didn’t have the luxury of spending years and years trying to figure out my major as I went along. I even took a couple years off between community college and university because of this. A friend of mine who was a student counselor sat down with me and really helped me hone in on what I wanted to do. I double majored in public relations and advertising and I’ve worked in this industry in one capacity or another since I graduated.

Can you talk about this idea of the ‘invisible Black woman’? Is that something you personally feel?

It’s something I think all Black women feel, regardless of industry. It is a fact that Black women are more likely than other groups to go unnoticed or unheard systemically across the board.

There was actually a study that was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology on this phenomenon back in 2010. In summary, a variety of faces were shown to participants and people overwhelmingly forgot the faces of Black women over both Black and white men and white women. It also examined whether or not Black women go unheard and discovered that compared to both Black and white men and white women, comments made by Black women are more likely to go unheard when made to a largely white audience. 

“Women’s issues” usually focus on white women (consider the feminist movement which is largely blind to distinct forms of oppression faced by BIPOC women). And “racial issues” typically focus on Black men. As a result, Black women are often disregarded.

I’ve absolutely felt unheard, unseen and overlooked in this way.

Can you talk about colorism in advertising and media and how that affects ad representation? [Colorism is discrimination against individuals with a darker skin tone among people of the same racial or ethnic group.]

There is a lot of focus on diversity these days, as there should be because it is long overdue. But very little is being said about racism’s little brother, colorism. While it’s a problem in all media, advertising is the original influencer (it was a $560 billion industry in 2019). It is suggestive and when done correctly, it can be immensely powerful. It shows us lifestyle ideals in a variety of ways. If this industry changes and includes a diverse group of people, of all different skin tones, in these ideals, then it can help stimulate serious societal shifts where our more melanated brothers and sisters are concerned.

Horowitz Research did a study on the state of Consumer Engagement in 2019 and found that roughly 55 percent of consumers that identify as multicultural said if a company cast people who looked like them in their ad campaigns, it would positively impact their decision to purchase. The same study found that Black consumers with a darker complexion are more likely to feel as though the ad industry disregards them but are more likely to react positively when they are represented in campaigns.

This issue boils down to the implicit biases that society and the industry holds. For centuries, dark-skinned Blacks in America, and the world over, have been villainized. After colonization, numerous cultures began to wrongly equate dark skin with being evil, bad or even scary, while aligning positively to that same culture’s fairer-skinned counterparts. For many people of color, myself included, casting one light-skinned, mixed-race person in an attempt to check off multiple culture boxes isn’t good enough anymore. That’s not real representation. It’s lazy to attempt to paint large swaths of people with one racially ambiguous brush and expect everyone to simply accept it and move on. There is an entire spectrum of people, with real buying power, that are tired of being ignored and are ready to be embraced by brands. 

Darker skinned people need to be included in campaigns, full stop.

Can you talk about Black buying power compared to ad representation?

Black buying power is steadily growing but retail environments are fraught with discrimination. A Gallup poll from 2018 showed that 30 percent of Black Americans felt they were treated unfairly while shopping because of the color of their skin. Although, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth, Black buying power was higher than the entire GDP of Mexico—$1.4 trillion in 2019—Black Americans are continuously unheard, overlooked and discriminated against, both in advertising and the retail spaces that are supported by that advertising.

Including the full range of people of color in advertising is not only the right thing to do but it’s smart business. Especially considering the fact that the growth of the Black dollar is outpacing that of their white counterparts.

Can you talk about your role as co-chair of the [Innocean] INNclusion council? What are you focused on in this role? What are your goals?

The idea for the INNclusion council began in January with Kirk Guthrie [senior VP, exec director of HR] and Tim Murphy [chief operating officer], but was unfortunately derailed by COVID-19 and Innocean’s need to adjust to what is now our new normal. After the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd that saw racial tensions hit a fever pitch, they decided to move forward with the council’s implementation in spite of our current work situation because they believed it was sorely needed.

I, along with my co-chairs, Carolina Montenegro and David Mesfin, were nominated after the first meeting of the council. Being a part of the broadcast traffic team, I have always considered myself a small fish in a big pond. That being said, I was surprised, humbled and honored to be nominated to help lead what I believe is an incredibly important initiative.

My co-chairs and I all wanted to hit the ground running. Moreover, we wanted to make sure that what we were putting in place was not only sustainable, but replicable, long after we were no longer heading the charge.

We decided to create subcommittees that focus on four key areas to tackle the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion at Innocean from a multi-pronged approach and to guarantee that we remain true to the cause: INNsight, INNrich, INNpower [and] INNervoice.

Do you think Innocean is doing enough to support its employees of color?

I think this question is largely subjective. As I mentioned before, we are a work in progress and I believe that Innocean has always put forth a genuine effort to support all of its employees. 

I can truthfully say that I have never felt like I didn’t have the support I needed in the workplace, but I also need to acknowledge that my situation is unique. I’m a mixed-race Black woman working within a multicultural team of all women and mothers. For nearly six years, my supervisor has been a woman of color. Her supervisor is a woman and a mother. I adore my team and have always felt like I can be honest, open and authentic with each one of them. It is this security that allowed me to openly share my experiences of racism and discrimination with the council which led to my nomination to be one of the co-chairs. If my team were any different, I don’t know that I could make that same statement.

Everyone has the right to enjoy that kind of support.

What do you want to see from the industry in terms of achieving true equity for people of color?

I want the industry to stop being indolent and do the hard work that a trend-setting industry should be doing. I want it to stop kowtowing to societal norms that are outdated and based in fallacious stereotypes. I want it to hold itself and its clients accountable to educate their employees on systemic racism and treat their BIPOC customers with the same respect that they afford to their white customers. I want it to be the change that it claims it wants to see in fleeting moments of civil unrest. The industry has the power. The question lies within the character of those who run the industry to implement real change.

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