Invisible Women: The Fruitless Search for Black Women in Mainstream Advertisements

by Patricia D. Raspberry, Ph.D.

Earlier this year, I gave up Facebook for Lent. My decision was based, in part, on my desire to make a sacrifice that would actually feel like a sacrifice and not a convenient way to save money, give my liver a break or lose 10 pounds. As an admitted Facebook addict, I knew this was going to hurt.

But another reason was a bit more self-serving. As much as I enjoyed Facebook, I’d truly grown tired of the seemingly endless stream of stories about racism in my newsfeed. So, I decided to take a break, hoping that ignorance would actually lead to more bliss or at the very least, peace of mind and spirit.

How did I fill the void? I’d love to say that I started writing a book, took a photography class or learned to meditate. But I simply ended up watching more television. And because much of the TV I watched was live (I exhausted my entire DVR cache in about two days), I also saw a lot of commercials.

As a market research consultant, I generally enjoy watching commercials. Thus, rather than ignoring or channel surfing through the ads during my Facebook hiatus, I paid attention. Unfortunately, what I saw (or more accurately, what I did not see) left me feeling almost as disheartened as the racist garbage I had grown tired of on Facebook.

In short, what I did not see was myself. In a recent commercial for Nationwide Insurance, a narrator tells us that, after years of being treated like she is invisible, actress Mindy Kaling is beginning to wonder if she actually is invisible.

Mindy, it isn’t just you.

When it comes to television advertising, it seems as if Black women are virtually invisible as well. I use the qualifier because I recognize that we are represented in some ads. But just barely.

When a Black woman is featured, she is usually a bit player at some uber hip social gathering, where the crowd looks impossibly happy, impossibly beautiful and overwhelmingly White. And she’s almost always single, while the Black men are paired with women who look nothing like her.

She’s the lone woman of color in a group of girlfriends who seems slightly out of place and makes us all wonder how she wound up there. She’s the sassy, heavyset woman who displays her expertise in cleaning or cooking while playing into every stereotype imaginable. She’s the sidekick who smiles benignly while standing two steps behind the white woman who has the lead role. She’s the only woman in the spot who doesn’t get a speaking part or whose face flashes across the screen so quickly that we barely see her. Or (as is increasingly becoming the case) she’s so “ethnically ambiguous” that she could be Black or biracial or Latin American or Middle Eastern or North African or Filipino…or a white woman with curly hair and a tan (does the name Rachel Dolezal ring a bell?).

On its own, the depiction of “ethnically ambiguous” women in advertising isn’t problematic. In fact, it’s a step in the right direction. Without a doubt, there are countless women with olive complexions and curly hair who greatly appreciate seeing themselves in ads. And their faces belong there just as much as any others. It becomes problematic when these images are used in lieu of rather than in addition to images of Black women of darker hues. And while it should go without saying, that is problematic because there are also countless women with caramel, chocolate and ebony complexions and tightly coiled, relaxed, loc’d, braided or closely shorn hair who are still waiting for their images to be reflected back to them.

Yes, there are some exceptions. But if you feel compelled to take a tally in an attempt to discredit my assertions, be sure to count the number of ads that don’t feature Black women as well. Once you do, I think you’ll get the point.

When I was working on my dissertation many moons ago, I reviewed a body of literature that suggested that until the late 1960s and early 70s, White advertisers were reluctant to put Black people in ads for fear of alienating White consumers (Colfax & Sternberg 1971; Kassarjian, 1969). Could that still be the case in 2015?

Can it be that advertisers still believe that White consumers who see a Black woman in an ad will decide that the product is unappealing or infer that it is not for them? I would hope that by now, advertisers have left that mindset in the past where it belongs. But if that isn’t the reason for the omission, then what is? Why is it that when I look at television commercials, more often than not, I end up feeling like women who look like I do simply do not exist?

For those who cannot relate to this experience or who feel inclined to dismiss it as “no big deal”, perhaps this analogy will help. Think about any time that you’ve traveled to an island or country whose inhabitants do not look like you. If you happened to watch television while there, you likely noticed that the people in the commercials bore little resemblance to you as well.

For Black women, this is what it feels like to look at commercials on an almost daily basis, not when we are traveling but when we are at home.

Studies have consistently shown that Black consumers are more brand loyal than Whites (New Media Metrics, 2012). Given that women tend to be the gatekeepers when it comes to determining what products and brands are brought into the household, it stands to reason that Black women, in particular, are some of the most loyal consumers there are. Once they find a brand they like, it often takes wild horses (or major screw ups) to drag them away.

Hence, imagine what would happen if advertisers actually demonstrated that they recognize and appreciate this loyalty by featuring more Black women in commercials. It’s quite possible that once Black women regularly see women with features, skin and hair like theirs advertising products they love, they would become more than brand loyalists; they could become brand advocates.

Although I am discussing this within the context of advertising, it’s really about more than just products and brands. It’s about the value that advertisers and marketers appear to place (or not place) on Black female consumers. It’s about the fact that little Black girls are being taught early on that even if they buy the brands they see advertised on TV, those brands are not made with them or people who look like them in mind. It’s about the fact that, intentional or not, the message is that when it comes to advertising, Black women’s faces are still considered a liability and that unless their curls are big and bouncy and their complexions are golden beige, their images simply do not exist beyond their own mirrors.

During the Super Bowl this year, I posted the following update (the Super Bowl was before Lent, by the way):

“With the exception of the Lexus spot, I can't help but notice how few African Americans are featured in these commercials, on the biggest advertising day of the year…No lead characters, no extras, nothing. Guess Black dollars don’t matter either. But maybe things'll turn around in the second half .”
This post attracted a significant number of “likes” and comments from friends who either made similar observations or offered their thoughts on why things are unlikely to change. However, the most poignant observation was from a friend who simply stated, “My 12 year old noticed the same thing.”

When I read that, a small part of my heart broke. I started my own company specifically because I wanted to help change the face of advertising so that Black people could look at ads and see themselves. The fact that a child could easily see that Black people are still not a part of the advertising landscape lets me know that this industry and I still have much more work to do.

Yet, I have not given up hope. I am encouraged by the handful of advertisers who are doing a great job of reflecting Black women’s images and lives. I want them to know that we see them and we appreciate the fact that they see us.

I recently saw two beautiful retail ads. One featured a cinnamon-hued mom and her chocolate daughter, both with big, beautiful kinky hair. The other featured two gorgeous and fashionable Black women alongside several equally gorgeous and fashionable White women. I was happy, not just for myself, but for ALL of the women and little girls who saw these ads, smiled and thought, “Hey, she looks like me!”

These advertisers demonstrated how easy it is to make room for all women. Why are others finding it so hard?

Photo: Shutterstock

Patricia Raspberry is Principal and Founder of Black Raspberry Consumer Insights, Inc., a qualitative research and consulting firm based in Washington D.C. Since 2005, Black Raspberry has helped advertising agencies, Fortune 500 brands and not-for-profit organizations uncover consumer insights that are used to develop advertising messages targeting African American consumers.

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