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