Black in Advertising

Shonna Sanders

By Shonna Sanders, Senior Project Manager at VMLY&R

Feb. 22, 2021

I remember one day, while enjoying my mom’s pancakes, I suddenly became curious about the glass bottle, which looked a lot like my mom, politely holding my syrup. That was the day I learned about the derogatory names my mom was subject to, the shameful imagery that existed in the world, and her attempts to shelter and protect me from them. It was the beginning of my journey into a world that did not view me the way I viewed myself. From this conversation, I began noticing and inquiring about the negative imagery I once would have ignored. One day my aunt grew tired of my barrage of questions and finally said, “Honey, it’s just marketing — it doesn’t define you!”

I leaned into awareness and began to notice the penetrating stares and curiosity when I walked into any room outside of familiar places. Backstage at my piano recital, at the Governor’s School playing bass clarinet, or winning in a math or science bowl, each time I heard pure amazement along with a congratulatory statement, but why? Then, one day when I was an exchange student in Tokyo, a person ran up and asked me if I knew Michael Jackson. It took me a second to stop being terrified enough to say, “No, I do not.” In that moment, I realized the only “positive” Black person he knew was Michael Jackson, and upon seeing another Black person, he assumed we were connected. I added a piece to my aunt’s statement: Marketing did not define me, but it could define how people see me and how they feel when they see me.

How many times did I watch a movie and knew the Black character was going to be the first to die?  I knew who was going to be ousted by the team as the players were presented on the first episode of a reality survival show.  These individuals were cast out without a care for the message it represented.   According to a Black Lives Matter survey, 76% of executives acknowledged the role of business in perpetuating systemic racism and inequality. Could the Black actor remaining alive, or the Black contestant winning the game, or simply adding more Black roles, actually make a difference?  To bring about change, we must forge a partnership through listening and education and striving to be authentic as to why.

Authentic diversity comes from the  people who are writing the lines, developing the code, and picking the imagery.  It is impossible to achieve when we are still experiencing “the first” or “the only” in the work place or social environment. Some people are lucky to experience even “a few” Black people in their sphere. Currently, only 6% of the entire marketing and advertising industry is Black. If these highly qualified individuals are looking for a charted path to upper management, they will find themselves becoming explorers for only 4% of Black people have arrived at a senior position, and only 3% of Black people occupy the C-suite.

The lack of true authenticity has not stopped many companies from whirling in the ocean of diversity of thought and assuming this will remove the need for diversity of action..  This requires “the only” or “the few” to speak for the whole. They find themselves repeatedly pointing out the issue and educating others on why it is offensive. The constant battle to correct or highlight biases can be draining, leaving feelings of despair that the Black voice may never be heard. When there is true diversity at all levels, we can begin to change the narrative through consistent, authentic thought and action. For what is marketing but the best of thought intended to drive individual and collective action.