November 21, 2022

Branding Racism

Jenny Enos author photoBy Jenny Enos

In Sociology, we often talk about how race is a social construct. Rather than being a fixed system of classification rooted in biological difference, racial difference is (and has always been) created through social interactions, policy, and cultural meaning-making. Who is included in specific racial categories is fluid and context-dependent, constantly shifting over time. Medical and biological scientists are increasingly beginning to agree with this sociological understanding of race.  For something allegedly rooted so firmly in genetics, there is surprisingly little evidence to suggest that race is a good measure for genetic heterogeneity.

When we contend that race is a social construct, we can start noticing the ways in which race and racial difference are constantly being negotiated, (re)defined, and solidified by social processes and institutions. How corporations brand and advertise their products is a particularly interesting way in which meaning-making happens around racial difference. As they market their products to consumers through advertising, corporations attach social meanings to their products. For example, a shoe brand doesn’t sell shoes just because people need shoes; rather, the brand sells shoes because they convince consumers that there is a desirable lifestyle associated with the shoes (e.g., a life of being active, free, “cool”, or rebellious). In this sense, brands both reflect our cultural marketplace and influence what we think is desirable and how we create meaning.

Race has long been an issue in advertising, branding, and other forms of public meaning-making. Popular representations of racial difference, such as images seen in advertisements, serve to enhance and stabilize the distinctions we place around racial groups and to naturalize racial difference. An illustrative example of this is this McDonald’s advertisement from the 1970s. At the time, companies were trying to broaden their consumer base and began including Black Americans in advertisements to appeal to more diverse audiences. In the McDonald’s ad, the text under an image of a Black family enjoying a meal at one of their restaurants says “Do your dinnertimin’ at McDonald’s” – an obvious and stereotypical appeal to African American vernacular of the time.

More recently, Quaker Oats announced they would change their 130-year old brand of “Aunt Jemima Syrup” which had featured an image of a Black woman. After public criticism, Quaker Oats was forced to grapple with the fact that their brand’s origin was based on the “mammy” racial stereotype – an enslaved woman often depicted as heavy set, bossy, and fiercely dedicated to her White household. Ads and brands like these, and the stereotypes they are embedded in, are representations of racial difference that feed into and help solidify the racial hierarchy and classification system.

Brands and advertisements have also contributed to racial meanings through their depictions of White people. For example, Abercrombie & Fitch are notorious for the ways in which their advertisements have focused on selling not just clothes but an image of elite whiteness as desirable and something to strive for. As Dwight McBride argues in his book on the topic, the company effectively made a brand out of White privilege and commodified it as a desirable lifestyle that consumers could attain by purchasing their clothing.

Images in catalogues and other advertisements almost exclusively showed extremely fit, attractive, White models described as “All American” and as having “natural beauty” – completely erasing any ethnic or racial diversity in the U.S. The brand’s reverence for whiteness was also evident in their discriminatory hiring practices for store attendants, which ultimately led to a class-action lawsuit that reached a $40 million settlement.

Sadly, excluding people of color from advertisements is not unique to Abercrombie & Fitch. In a recent study of the product catalogues from two of the most prominent electric guitar brands in the U.S. between 1955-1982, Ali Chaudhary finds that Black people were systematically excluded from product images; despite the fact that Black celebrity guitarists popularized the instrument during this time. The article, published earlier this year in Sociological Forum, argues that these advertisements are reflective of the racist, segregationist ideas around racial hierarchy and difference that were widely circulating in that era. In featuring almost exclusively White guitarists and associating electric guitars with White masculinity, the prominent Black guitarists who shaped much of the music at the time were rendered non-existent and irrelevant to the music industry.

What these examples all show is that just about any commodity can be branded and advertised in ways that play into racist stereotypes and serve to solidify Whites’ standing in the racial hierarchy. While corporations may seem to be becoming more socially aware these days, much is still left to do to ensure that people of color have fair and positive representation in not just the advertisements themselves but also the creative process behind them. 

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