Why so many blacks in ads?

One morning at breakfast I said to my wife, “Does T.J. Maxx especially cater to blacks?”

“Not that I know of. Why?”

“Well, they have a big ad in the paper showing two black women.”

“That’s not unusual. Lots of ads do that.”

“Yes, that’s what I’m noticing. Why do you suppose they do that?”

We are often told that America is still a fundamentally racist society. Not all, or even most, Trump voters are racist. But his campaign did push racist buttons, and racial resentments and anxieties did play a big role. A lot of less educated working class whites were voting against minorities – with a feeling they’re getting more than their due (to the detriment of those whites), and that a less white America is a worse America.

Yet since I noticed that T.J. Maxx ad, I’ve made a point of tallying blacks in ads and commercials. And in fact they are way overrepresented, relative to their 13+% population share. I even saw one TV ad with a white couple whose child looked kind of black. Of course, if you show a bunch of folks, you want to include some minorities. But what about ads with only one or two people, like T.J. Maxx’s? Let me offer a theory.

If this were indeed a racist society, where white people basically dislike, resent, and shun blacks, presumably no business would want to feature blacks in its ads. The purpose of advertising is to make a brand attractive. Advertisers must calculate that black faces actually do that.

Of course, the blacks shown in (modern) ads are not disadvantaged stereotypes; far from it, they are instead middle class people, speaking plain middle class English (not ethnic dialect), shown in typical middle class activities.

And while these ads don’t specifically target black customers, they certainly don’t target less educated working class Trumpites. That’s not at all the consumer demographic advertisers want to reach; those people are just disregarded. Instead, for a lot of ads, the target audience is better educated, more affluent and, especially, younger consumers. (Indeed, the content of some ads today must baffle older Archie Bunker viewers. Some baffle even me.) That yuppie demographic is where the consumer-spending money is. And for them, blackness is actually attractive; connoting coolness, hipness, with-it-ness, knowing what’s going on. Not inferior but superior. And to this demographic, an America fully integrating blacks is a better America. Putting them in ads hence creates a positive buzz.

Yet this is just one more way in which America is dividing into two very different cultures inhabiting the same body politic. How long can this split personality endure?



12 Responses to “Why so many blacks in ads?”

  1. All My Guts and Soul Says:

    Hi Frank,

    I don’t care to venture a guess as to why you see more people of color in advertising. I leave that to the advertising experts and the people paying for the advertising. You are entitled to have curiosity regarding this. I do want to respectfully let you know what I think about a few things you have written.

    Accepted language changes frequently, so maybe you aren’t aware that the term “blacks” is derogatory. The preferred term is “people of color,” which could also refer to people of Latin, Indian, Arab, Native American descent, etc. Simply “black people” would also be acceptable. I find it disheartening that you feel the need to defend a non-racist portrayal of this country or a voting constituency of this country, but your reaction is not uncommon among white people. No one likes to be judged, especially in a negative light. I know I’ve had a few defensive reactions myself over racism.

    I’m trying to let go of my defensiveness and be open to understanding from other points of view. Currently, I am very clear that being white has allowed me more privilege than a person of color. I have benefited from a long history of the subjugation of people of color. Not only are the lives of people of color affected negatively by white supremacy (I know it’s a hard term to accept, but it is accurate and honest), but the lives of white people and every person on the planet are affected by it.

    It is a high learning curve for white people, but there are plenty of resources available for us to learn from. I know that I am a racist because I have benefited from racism. I will always be a racist, but hopefully a racist that continues to take action to dismantle white supremacy.

    As for the split personality – I’m having difficulty viewing that from your perspective, but I do believe Americans are split on many aspects in a form of cognitive dissonance – racism being one, especially considering the time people spend denying it.


  2. Roger Green Says:

    Here’s a different take from me: if they had all white people, you might not have noticed at all. Not that it’d be racist, but “normal.”

    Oh, and I reject the notion that the term black is derogatory. People of color is far less descriptive if what you mean are African-Americans.

  3. All My Guts and Soul Says:

    African-American is also not accurate. Many dark-skinned Americans are descendants of places other than Africa.

  4. Roger Green Says:

    Historically, most the people who are considered black at one point had ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa. But it’s not a term I like either because not all blacks in the US are from America.

  5. Sylvia Barnard Says:

    I get a lot of things from the UK and they also over-represent dark-skinned people. A lot of the stuff I get from both countries features colleges and universities, independent schools, intellectual trips and tours, the UK National Trust,Episcopal/Anglican churches and church activities, you get the picture, and my sense is that it is a message to dark-skinned people that they are welcome to participate in whatever it is. My dark-skinned friends indicate that it is not always clear to them whether they will be actually welcomed here or there or whether there are unverbalised barriers even today but the pix tell them that the school, church, club or whatever, even if it’s still almost lily-white, wants to change.

  6. Lee Says:

    I am thinking that comparing the fraction of ads with people of color to the fraction of the population is not quite right. This is advertising, not an allocation of resources. If seeing someone “like me” is a way to get me to buy then companies get more bang for the buck if they feature all major population groups, in roughly equal proportions. All people will see people like themselves and want to buy!

  7. K.l. Asher Says:

    It’s about impossible to find a commercial for security-alarm service without a black spokesperson and white criminals. FBI stats will tell you a different story.

  8. Bruce Haas Says:

    Forgive me. My bias as an over-educated Trump supporter (MBA, career included marketing and advertising and research) may be a problem for you. As a conscientious, growing, practicing follower of Jesus Christ I have a personal spiritual mandate to see all my fellow humans as creations of our Creator God, and until they prove otherwise, they are to have my love and respect.

    Granted I have not conducted any scientific study of this and related issues. However, if I did my hypothesis to prove or disprove would include the following: 1) Blacks are overrepresented in commercials of all types for all products and services in America. 2) Women as the head of household and/or the “brains of the outfit” are overrepresented. and 3) Biracial relationships with a black male paired with a white female are overrepresented, and 4) children are most often shown to be dominant characters, especially when a white male is part of the presentation. The same will apply to Government advertisement as the private sector.

    Urban liberal advertising agency powers are still directing ad content and money to buy ad campaigns, so this should be no surprise.

    However, are they risking a backlash? Are they fomenting a bit of “reverse racism” and unnecessary divisiveness?

  9. Roger Green Says:

    I want to understand Mr. Haas’ point. If there were fewer People in Color in ads, would this avoid a backlash? Or would having POC NOT seeing themselves have them draw the conclusion that the product/service is not for them? .

  10. Chris M. Says:

    Bruce, you are spot on. I feel like the media is (again) shoving a agenda down our throats. I went to my bank (Union Bank) the other day and they had 4 financial brochures on display. Three had black people and one had white. This is not unusual at all. What about Asians and Latinos? I do want diversity in all but let’s try and let it be a little natural.

  11. Rich Says:

    If a person from eastern or central Europe would come to are country for a vacation and after seeing tv ads, newspaper ads he or she would think America is a Negro nation.

  12. Donna Rachiele Says:

    I think since Obama came into office commercials bias toward african americans

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