Today, it’s unusual to see a major U.S. advertiser using only white models in its ads or using racist themes to promote its brands.When that happens, the advertiser usually gets into trouble — as Abercrombie & Fitch has done, repeatedly, over its racist promotional efforts.
In fact the advertising business has a long, lousy history of racism.
But ads have also been used to change people’s minds about race, and to make racism unacceptable in the media. Here’s the story of race in America, as told through its ads.
Warning: This slideshow contains ads dating back to the 1800s, some of which are very racist. Readers may find them offensive or upsetting.
1875 onward: This ad for N.K. Fairbank Co.'s Fairy soap was shameless. (Fairbanks was founded in 1875; this ad probably appeared sometime after 1897.) The black child is presented as if she's devoid of any positive qualities whatsoever.
1889: The Aunt Jemima brand was founded, just 26 years after the emancipation proclamation. Despite the obvious racism of this ad (which came years later), Jemima was always portrayed with at least one positive quality: Her food is good. The tone, however, is antebellum — blacks are domestic servants.
1900: At the turn of the century, Bull Durham tobacco still portrayed black Americans with exaggerated features..
Through 1919: The CPF raised funds for soldiers' families. The trope of the stoic, noble Indian would persist in North American advertising for decades.
1937: In this ad, the black servant stereotype is still prevalent. Yet he's serving medicine and has an actual job. Historically, this was progress.
1938: At the same time, advertising still held the idea of black domestic servants in nostalgic regard, particularly for brands with Southern heritage.
1961: Hispanic immigration finally made its mark on commercial imagery. West Side Story was a Broadway hit in the late 1950s. But in the early 1960s, variations of this movie poster brought the musical to the masses — along with the idea that Puerto Ricans are knife-wielding urban romantics who hang their laundry on the fire escape.
1975: This movie trailer for 'Mandingo' is one of the most shockingly racist ads (and movies) of the post-civil rights era. It starred James Mason and Susan George — huge stars in their day, who ought to have known better.
1988: This ad was produced by Godfather's Pizza while Herman Cain was CEO. In its defence, you could argue that you can only get the joke if you realise that it's poking fun at racial stereotypes.
1991: This recent cover of 1990s super models looks unremarkable today. But back in 1991, when Naomi Campbell first began making ads for Gianni Versace, the notion that a black woman could front an international fashion brand was revolutionary.
The 1990s: Benetton's multi-racial advertising becomes a politically correct cliche — and the de facto standard for racial representation in ads. Today, it's unusual if a major brands does not use Asian, Hispanic and black models in its ads.
2010: Old Spice Guy is the ne plus ultra of the post-racial American ad campaign. Everyone loves him. No one cares about his race. But ... a cynic might point out that he appears the same way as 1969's 'Slack Power' guy. Hmm. Perhaps we're not as post-racial as we'd like to be.
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