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Here’s What 500 Black Americans Have to Say About Black Representation in Advertising

A survey conducted by Burns Group offers unflinching insight into what marketers need to change

By: Mary Emily O'Hara 

If June has taught us anything, it’s that Black and African Americans face obstacles other groups can hardly comprehend, whether in relation to criminal justice, the workplace, the economy or so many other factors of daily life.

But when it comes to Black Americans in advertising, research tends to focus on the basics: what brands consumers prefer, broken down by race, gender, age and the usual benchmarks.

So when Burns Group’s BrandInformers fielded an open-ended poll online June 29 asking a single not-so-simple question, the answers were so powerful that the agency decided not to perform the usual spreadsheet analysis. Instead, they left the data in a format that’s raw in more than one sense of the word.

The poll asked self-identified Black and African American respondents just one question: “How are you represented in advertising (if at all)?” Five hundred people ages 13-73 responded from 40 states, and a majority of those anonymous comments were placed on a stark webpage with the intent of quickly reaching as much of the advertising industry as possible. Spoiler alert: Black Americans are largely unhappy with the way they are represented in advertising.

“In advertising we are depicted as people that play sports or are helping in a way one may see as subservient,” said a 33-year-old man in South Carolina.

“I usually don’t see dark skin Black women shown in much advertising,” said a 34-year-old woman in Missouri, “so I don’t think people that look like me are really seen.”

Some of the comments celebrated recent efforts to show more racial diversity in advertising. One respondent applauded the Black actor cast as the new “Jake from State Farm” and another praised Calvin Klein’s casting of Black transgender model Jari Jones. But other comments are heartbreaking—especially one from the youngest person surveyed.

“We are portrayed to be dirty, animals and heartless when we are nothing of the such,” said a 13-year-old girl in New Jersey. “Yes, there are people like that, but that is not unique to the USA. Other races have people who have said qualities.”

Adweek shared the results of the survey with Bennett D. Bennett, co-founder of the group 600 & Rising. He said the sentiments show that the industry itself needs to change to better meet the needs of consumers.

“All the issues we’re trying to solve for at 600 & Rising culminate in this end result: a world where Black people are portrayed through a limited lens,” said Bennett. “We share in the frustration of the Black community; we’re more than athletes and entertainers, and we deserve that dignity from brands and agencies who target us.”

While the survey is presented in the form of raw quotes, there are some trends immediately apparent. Many respondents said they feel Black people in advertising appear mostly as athletes, in hair care ads, or in the form of interracial couples rather than in relationships with Black partners. Some said they felt Black actors were being cast in ways that didn’t ring as authentic, being slapped into “white-washing” situations and roles as tokens. An overwhelming number of responses said that most Black people seen in advertising have light skin tones, and that seeing dark skin is rare.

“These aren’t just opinions of the moment, they’ve been said for years and a lot of us are just listening right now,” said Jo McKinney, CEO at Burns Group, which also worked on this spring’s #BiasCorrect campaign. “They’re very raw and very honest.”

McKinney said that while her agency, along with others in the industry, is undergoing its own racial justice transformation of sorts, “we have a lot to do ourselves to be more anti-racist.” And so does the industry at large.

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