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BrainTrust Query: Are African American women stereotyped too often in ads?

August 4, 2006

By David Morse, President and CEO, New American Dimensions, LLC

A full figured African American woman asks her boyfriend if her pants make her rear end look big. As the camera zooms in on her large backside, her boyfriend stuffs his face with a Twix candy bar, so he need not answer.

A man on an airplane puts down his Dairy Queen Blizzard so he can stash his bag in the overhead compartment. Shocked when he catches the person next to him stealing a few swallows, he accidentally drops his bag on another passenger, a heavy African American woman who screams at him.

In a series of ads for Universal Studios, a heavy black woman is on a roller coaster ride with her two children. In the excitement and terror of the ride, she lets out a manic howl and buries the heads of her two young children in her bosom.

Pine-Sol has been doing it for years with the "Pine-Sol lady," played by actress and comedian Diane Amos. Using sassy and boisterous overweight African American women in ads seems to be a trend these days. And an article in the New York Times this week asks if this is not a throw-back to the not-so-good-old-days when Blacks were overtly stereotyped in ads to sell products to Whites.

Describing the seemingly ubiquitous character, the ad's author Jeremy Peters writes: "At 200 pounds plus – most of that pure attitude – she is hard to miss. Her onscreen presence takes on many variations, but she is easily recognizable by a few defining traits. Other than her size, she is almost always black. She typically finds herself in an exchange that is either confrontational or embarrassing. And her best line is often little more than a sassy 'Mmmm hmmm'."

Discussion Question: Are these 'big and sassy' ads offensive to African Americans or have we just gotten too uptight?

Whether or not these ads are offensive to African Americans depend on which African Americans you ask. The article quotes several.

Referring to the Dairy Queen woman, Howard Buford, founder and chief executive of Prime Access, a multicultural advertising agency, said, "It's not an accident that she's African American and heavy. There's certainly a long heritage of large African American women who are kind of sassy and feisty and humorously angry. There's a sense that this whole value system is okay again."

Harvard professor Orlando Patterson sees things differently. "To the Black audience, this may be 'You do your thing, sister.' The White audience is laughing with her. Then they go back to reality and they laugh at her".

Clearly we've come a long way from the days when African Americans were portrayed in servile roles a la Aunt Jemima, Rastus the Cream of Wheat chef and Uncle Ben - characters that evoked the days of slavery.

According to a study by UCLA Professor Harold H. Kassarjian, in 1946 about 8 in ten African American models found in magazine ads were depicted as either a "maid, waiter, slave, field hand, personal servant, the Aunt Jemima or the Uncle Tom." And some of these portrayals were highly offensive. Marilyn Kern-Foxworth describes the look in her amazing book, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: "The mouth was opened unusually wide and filled with large and/or carnivorous white teeth encased by exceptionally large, thick, ruby-red protruding lips. The eyes in these advertisements were most often seen bulging uncontrollably with ecstatic fright."

This history is ugly, but the answer is not to shy away from using African Americans in advertising. It is to portray them as they see themselves, as they would like to be seen. To quote Mr. Buford in the article: "There are images of African Americans created for White people by White people and there are images of African Americans created for African Americans. And there's a big difference."

There is a big difference. Our research shows that African Americans like to see themselves in all their diversity and that includes, slim, smart educated professionals. Smart advertisers are the ones that test their ads on African American consumers - just to make sure they capture that.

Discussion Questions:

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Do you regard the portrayal of 'big and sassy' African American women in ads as racist?


Yes, they are stereotyped and so are Soccer Moms, blondes, Hispanics, Muslims and many others. Whether this is right or wrong is a complex issue...in mass marketing, generalization is hard to avoid. Is this deliberate and harmful stereotyping?

As far as whether or not this is offensive, I am not qualified to answer and nor do I think anyone who is not an African American is qualified to answer. I can not comment on someone else's feelings. How can I know whether it hurts them or not?

Michael Tesler, Founding Partner, Retail Concepts

The referenced commercials that come to my mind actually leave me with a warm positive feeling. I see a strong self assured woman, reacting with power and poise to a situation. I identify and wish I had that kind of presence of mind. I like the characters. Nothing derogatory even enters my mind.


If all stereotypes were eliminated from advertising, how much advertising would be left? Men are routinely shown as stupid, women as narcissistic, children as perky, etc. What is the difference between Amos 'n Andy and Sanford & Son? Racism is certainly controversial, and it's hard to draw the line sometimes. Why not steer clear of anything that might be tainted by it? There are so many other ways to communicate a message.

Mark Lilien, Consultant, Retail Technology Group

On a general level, stereotyping and profiling are a sad reality and yes, we ought do our best not to perpetrate them as human beings and as marketers. As far as the full-figured African American lady, (a big-box D-I-Y retailer also features one in a paint selection TV spot, alongside the stupid male stereotype) let's also recognize that she is a positive personality in many ways. She takes care of business, stands up for herself, is quick-witted and is likely aware that her expression of "anger" is entertaining to some. If a white woman tried to pull this off with the same attitude, the effect wouldn't be as positive or entertaining. She would be a nag. I think women can identify with the Lysol lady because she's a woman who knows what she's talking about, race and weight aside.


The ads are designed to make over eating look normal, fun. Like explicitly pitching tobacco and alcohol to minority market segments. It's racist, sexist and immoral. But money's money, so what's the point?

John Lansdale, consultant, zaxpop.com

I think if you made the effort you could find more ads that show slim, attractive, professional African Americans applying for loans in banks, looking for their first home, using product xyz... Those ads just aren't as memorable as the ones that feature a large boisterous African American woman, or an obnoxious comedian, or a sassy know it all kid, etc.

I don't know if it is so much of a stereotype as it is a use of a character actor. I suppose some of the portrayals could be seen as negative, but for the most part I have not personally viewed them that way. I think it is nice that actresses that are not 5'11" and 100 lbs soaking wet are getting getting some jobs.


I'm with Mark Lilien. A Martian watching American television would conclude we're all morons, regardless of race, gender or age. TV ads are full of white "dads" who are slapstick fools and white "moms" who live to gossip and shop. Can't we, as an industry, do better than this?

Lisa Everitt, writer, industry.BNET.com/retail

WOW! Interesting topic. As I think back to the ads I can recall, I seldom see overweight men in commercials...big but not significantly overweight. But women, and often African American women, are portrayed as robust, overly big, fat. Why is that? How has the female market allowed this to happen? I know I'd be insulted. It is kind of like how TV often portrays the male head of household. Rather than "Father Knows Best," we get "Married with Children." Stumbling, bumbling men, who can't get through the day by themselves.

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Jerry Gelsomino, Principal, FutureBest

Saying that most ads and most TV shows stereotype either men or women is, in my opinion, a cop-out answer to this question. I am not qualified to offer an answer because I am not African-American. One would need to ask an African-American how they view this commercial. Are these ads targeting the African-American community? If so, what has been the reaction.

On a gut-check reaction, I hate stereotype ads that target a race or creed; thus I find the ads offensive. There is a difference in portraying all men in a certain way, because that covers all men regardless of race. But if you portray all Italians as Mafia because the Mafia is run by Italians, that would be crossing the line.

Bernie Slome, VP of Business Development, ICC/Decision Services

The people who say stereotypes are just humorous likely don't belong to any of those groups (except maybe the absentminded fathers that some of you may be) so think it's OK to just sit back and laugh. But as I've said over and over again on this site, I object to the advertising industry's propensity to fit people into boxes. I do understand that targeting helps to sell products because you don't waste valuable dollars on marketing to people who are never going to be interested but that doesn't make forcing people into categories any more accurate. Or less offensive. This isn't just a matter of large African American women or dumb blondes or soccer moms or cheeky children with big toothless grins. It goes much deeper and has far more to do with our generalised need to see people as groups rather than individuals. The introduction pointed out that opinions among African Americans varied depended on who was asked. Obviously they vary among RW contributors as well. So they should.

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Bernice Hurst, Owner, Fine Food Network

The ads are designed to get attention and be entertaining, perhaps at the expense of offending a few. Obviously, if too many people in the targeted audience were offended, we would not have these types of ads. I'm sure we can all think of times each one of us was offended by some advertisement. Members of the clergy are often portrayed poorly on television as bumbling wimps. Good students are often portrayed as nerds. If people are offended, they should speak up.

David Livingston, Principal, DJL Research

The issue is not really whether stereotypes appear, but whether or not they are over-represented; one need not be fanatical about it (i.e. exactly 9.2% of ads MUST....) but if either all representations of black women are "Big Mommas," or all Big Mommas depicted are black, then yes, it is perpetuating a negative stereotype.

One would think society would have moved beyond this by now, and concentrate all of its negative stereotypes on the one group where it is allowed, encouraged (hell...practically mandated): teenagers.


Just take a look at the movies and TV shows these ads mimic & interrupt. Scenes in Big Mamma's House, & Queen Latefa's Beauty Shop & Last Holiday and Eddie Murphy's version of Nutty Professor aren't even close to being sensitive to this issue that everyone is trying to dance around.

The ads, shows and movies obviously have worked and year after year analysis would have killed them all forever if not.

Let's stop fueling all this over-sensitivity and just have a good belly laugh from time to time....


I find it interesting that the brands and products were recalled for this discussion from the start. Apparently the ads worked! I'm not saying the end justifies the means, however, from my "focus group of one" the ads were funny and impactful at conveying the message they intended.

I think this group had to dig a bit to bring the racial aspect to the commercials.


Blacks are stereotyped in everything and I can't figure out why they don't picket every network and Hollywood studio. The are generally portrayed as emotional... underachievers... clowns... with little intelligence. If I have to watch one more "black show" where the majority of the characters embark on one "get rich quick" scheme after another only to be reeled in at the last minute by the "only intelligent black" in the USA. The values communicated by these shows don't reflect the black community, but do promote the bigoted view that blacks are innately impulsive and ignorant, who value a pair of Nike tennis shoes more than an education. This is not the black community that I know - but THAT black community does exist and its worst characteristics are portrayed as "typical" by the media and Hollywood.

Ed Dennis, president, Dennis Enterprises

We are a racially diverse society. Poking fun is not necessarily a good way to sell advertising, but it doesn't necessarily reflect a prejudicial slant. There are many stereotypes that we follow in advertising, yet we don't hear about (do only men drink beer and drive trucks?). Ironically they are aimed at poking fun at our beliefs rather than the truth in the fallacious reasoning of a bias. Part of advertising is to explore the oversimplification of stereotypes and we are becoming too sensitive here. Coke doesn't really taste better, nor do Mazda's drive faster, yet we reinforce the belief that this stereotype might be true in the ads. This simplification occurs when the ads use people to discuss a feature (Levi pants aren't only considered tight by women) of a product (all kids don't just play videogames) etc. We are clearly becoming overly sensitive when we examine advertising. We need to relax and enjoy the message of the ad, rather than dissecting it to interpret any offensive signals it could be sending....

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Kai Clarke, CEO, American Retail Consultants

I can't personally speak for how African Americans feel about the ads that are shown as examples, but I can say that I see many other ads that present African Americans as successful professionals. Stereotyping has been part of ads for as long as advertising has existed, and we constantly see blondes being shown as being dumb, people from the south as hillbillies, and people from Texas as cowboys, etc. If someone uses an ad that is really offensive to a particular race or group of people, they can use the most powerful weapon of all and refuse to buy a particular product or service, thus hurting the company financially. Personally, I think there is an oversensitivity to this issue, and that we have bigger problems to worry about.

Barry Wise, Princpal, Wise Retail Consultants

Why does White Liberal America feel compelled to carry around residual guilt regarding race and stereotypes? They didn't enslave anybody, they didn't create the stereotypes, and they don't owe anyone anything except common respect. Why we go all "angst" over issues like this is beyond me.

Those from the ad community will recognize the principle of semiotics, which is a sort of short-hand way of communicating that's developed over thousands of years, and which includes symbols, semantics, syntactics and, yes, stereotypes. The best ad designers are usually more innately tuned in to semiotics, allowing them to tap into the images, stories, and impressions we commonly share in our minds. Using stereotypes to communicate and understand is, frankly, necessary in all parts of our lives.

Some appear to use semiotics for gain by reinforcing negative stereotypes. If the stereotypical image of large African American women is a bad one - and there seems to be some doubt expressed in today's discussion - are those who perpetuate it reprehensible? Further, if African Americans are the ones reinforcing this negative image for money, are they not the most reprehensible of all? Already mentioned were Eddie Murphy's "The Klumps" and Martin Lawrence's "Momma." We can also add Tyler Perry's character, "Madea." All are African American men dressing up in fat suits and women's clothes (hmmm, there might be something else to this). Are these actors' portrayals seen as positive rather than negative in their culture, and is White Liberal America getting itself worked up into a needless guilty lather once again?

M. Jericho Banks PhD, President, CEO, Forensic Marketing LLC

I agree with Mark - there are so many other ways to communicate a message. In addition, I wonder who their test panel was in approving these ads. I am a white woman (since it appears from this discussion that it matters) who does not find humor in the type-casting use of overweight women (black or white) to sell a product. My reaction to these ads is not positive....

Karen Ribler, President, KJR Consulting

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