Image: Nike

Brands across countries and industries have been racing to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. From sportswear giants like Nike and Adidas – with the former playing with its memorable tagline of “Just Do It” by encourage consumers with a new slogan, “For once, Don’t Do It” in regards to racism – to luxury names, such as Chanel and Gucci, the latter of which doubled down on its various existing efforts to “create positive change within the fashion industry,” many of these companies have vowed to take a hard look at their history and current working practices to see what changes can be made to address structural racism.

The notion that we need to reform various areas of society is finally growing. But the idea itself is, of course, nothing new. Calls and attempts to reform curriculumspublic transport systemsmuseum collections, and healthcare systems, for instance – or remove/rewrite rules and concepts left by colonial-era thinking that still control or influence society – have been around for a while, but as of late, appear to be becoming more widespread. 

However, even though many brands are stepping up and making public-facing statements, the industries, themselves, need examining – whether that be the $2 trillion-plus global apparel industry or the multi-hundred-billion beauty sphere. 

The role of advertising

Advertising plays a particularly important role in the quest to reform, as American city-dwellers usually see approximately 5,000 advertisements a day – from those on social media to those that appear on the sides of buildings in major cities – and many contain messages that reinforce racial inequality. A 2019 study from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that “people of color made up just 43.1 percent of characters in 2018 ads,” while “white characters are more likely than characters of color to be depicted as having an occupation.” 

Such messaging is common in ad campaigns around the world. One advertising campaign that drew particular attention in the United States and the United Kingdom for its treatment of race was the 2017 Dove ad that showed a black woman removing her brown top and revealing a white woman underneath. Faced with backlash about the racially insensitive nature of the ad, a representative for Dove said a marketing campaign “missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully.”

More recently, Dolce and Gabbana came under fire for one of its campaigns, which featured a Chinese model attempting to use chopsticks to eat Italian food. The campaign and subsequent racist commentary from one of the brand’s founders deeply offended Chinese luxury consumers. The campaign was swiftly discontinued but not before celebrities and retailers swore of their support for the brand. These cases and countless others clearly demonstrate show that advertising across an array of industries needs to be addressed and refashioned in order to stop reinforcing discriminatory messaging.

Ways to reform advertising

An obvious place to start this is with college and universities’ curriculum. It should become standard practice for marketing and advertising courses to emphasize how advertising not only persuades consumers but also influences society. Just as we look back – often in dismay – at ads from the 1950s and their reflection of negative gender stereotypes, such as women stuck at home doing laundry or being relegated to the kitchen as opposed to taking part in the workforce, the same exercise will certainly be done in 2050, analyzing our current advertising campaigns. Advertisers better be prepared. 

A change is also needed within actual advertising agencies, themselves, many of which suffer from a marked lack of diversity, particularly in the upper ranks. Even though more women are obtaining top roles, there needs to be more of a gender balance, and far more racial diversity is needed. This will help to encourage more inclusive messaging.  Still yet, the companies paying for advertising need to change by practicing what they preach. This means that they need to follow through and act on their recent messages of solidarity, including by way of their marketing campaigns. 

Take Nike’s “Don’t Do It” ad. This is a good example of a brand calling attention to racism in society. But this, too, has been controversial because even though Nike has supported black athletes over the years, the company has been questioned over its lack of black representation on its leadership team, and sued on the basis of alleged racial discrimination. 

Finally, bodies that regulate advertising, whether that be the Advertising Standards Agency in the UK or Truth in Advertising in the U.S., can play a role by being proactive when it comes to offensive marketing materials and message. 

Carl Jones is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Westminster. (Edits/additions courtesy of TFL)