African American Women in Advertising

Introduction

As a whole, women of color were largely underrepresented and stereotyped in advertising. Due to the availability of information, this section focuses specifically on African American women in advertising. There are very few ads featuring African American women in open source archives, which speaks to the lack of representation of African American women in the ad industry. In the roles they were portrayed in, African American women were often depicted as inferior and subservient (“African-Americans: Representations in Advertising”). The purpose of this page is to provide a range of resources discussing how African American women were represented in advertisements from the 1950s to the 1970s, in order to better understand the stereotypes that are still at play today.

An advertisement promoting June as Dairy Month, one of the few advertisements in the DPLA featuring African American women.

The Mammy

African American Women Representation and Aunt Jemima

At the end of the 19th century, advertisers started to utilize the use of the Mammy caricature in ads because they realized it had commercial value in advertising to a white audience (“The Mammy Caricature”). The Mammy is an archetype of an African American woman who was a housekeeper for a white family, first used in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1952 (Wallace-Sanders 7). The figure arose from the years of slavery in the United States, when female African American slaves would often do domestic tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and nurturing (Walker-Barnes 85-87). During the Jim Crow era, advertisers utilized the stereotype of the Mammy as a devoted, domestic servant to a white family in products geared towards white consumers. The Mammy became the face of household products, such as breakfast foods and cleaning supplies (“The Mammy Caricature”).

One of the most popular examples of the Mammy figure, one that is still a popular American icon today, is Aunt Jemima. Quaker Oats used Aunt Jemima as the face of their pancake mix and the brand became so popular, by 1910 over 120 million boxes were sold annually (“The Mammy Caricature”). Aunt Jemima was characterized as asexual, chubby, and a loyal domestic servant. Here character was supposed to be reminiscent of a fictional past of “the slave South as a happy, idyllic, prosperous place, in which kindly masters and nurturing mistresses oversaw the work of loyal and contented slaves” (Behnken and Smithers 30). By the 1960s, Aunt Jemima was used in advertisements as a way to promote family values and demonstrate how happiness and success could be achieved for the white suburban family. The loyal Aunt Jemima figure was used to uphold the idea of white success. During the Civil Rights movement, the Mammy representation was widely protested. The face of Aunt Jemima was eventually redone in 1989 so that she was slimmer and did not use stereotypical dialect in her ads (“The Mammy Caricature”). However, Aunt Jemima is still used today as the face of Quaker Oat’s pancake mix and is widely popular in America.

Sources discussing and displaying the Mammy stereotype and Aunt Jemima:

1.  Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to Frito Bandito here

2. "The Mammy Caricature" here

3. More history of the Mammy Caricature here

4. Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory here 

5. Too Heavy a Yoke here

During this time, when African American females were in advertisements, it was for ads geared towards a white audience. This meant that they were constantly “othered”, built into a stereotypical character in order to control how white people viewed them. These images made it difficult for African American women to fight past these stereotypes in institutions such as education and the workplace. These stereotypes also heavily impacted how African American women saw their identity and understood their reality, because there were limited representations in media and the representations that existed were built on racial stereotypes born from the time of slavery (Alon and Haberfield).

It is important to understand the history of the Mammy character, because traits reminiscent of this representation are still subtly around in portrayals of African American women in media today. African American women are often portrayed in supporting roles to a white lead, and will often be represented as caretakers, nurturing, generous, and loyal (Walker-Barnes 85-87).

 

Sources about African Americans history in the Ad Industry

1. Pioneering African American Women in the Advertising Business here

2. "Vine Cullers: First African American to Own a Full-Service Advertising Agency" here

3. "African American Representation in Advertising" here

4. "Mad Men in Black" here

African American Oriented Media

In the 1960s, some of the Civil Rights Movement's efforts were geared towards improving diversity in the advertising industry. In 1963, the NAACP and CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) fought for the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers to increase employment of African American models and expand their role portrayal in advertisements. However, in 1967 research showed that African Americans held only 3.5% of jobs in the top 35 New York ad agencies. Of these jobs, most were either clerical positions or in the “special market” area, which was for ads focused on an African American audience (Davis 41-43). In the 60s, the interest in African Americans as a “special market” had grown as industries saw the potential of marketing to African Americans as a separate consumer base.

By the early 1970s, African American ad agencies were opening at an increasing rate. By 1972, 25 had opened in the United States. A new advertising method started that used “positive realism”, a coin termed by Tom Burrell where African American models were shown using products in a realistic way, countering the deprecating ads historic of the past (Davis 43-44). These ads were used in African American oriented media, targeted specifically at the African American consumer market.

Popular Magazines

Ebony magazine, started in 1945 by John H. Johnson, was the most popular African American oriented publication at the time. Johnson spent most of the 60s pushing corporations to treat African Americans as a separate consumer base and use African American models in ads in order to bring more representation into the ad industry. He argued that the African American market needed to see ads they self-identified with. Advertisers created specific ads just for Ebony that featured black models using their products (Davis 42-43). Jet magazine, Ebony’s sister magazine, emerged in 1951, becoming popular for reporting the early events of the Civil Rights Movement. It grew to include fashion tips, entertainment news, politics, health, and diet tips. In 1968, Essence was published, a lifestyle magazine geared towards African American women. In “Black Womanhood: Essence and its Treatment of Stereotypical Images of Black Women”, Jennifer Bailey Woodard and Teresa Mastin discuss how Essence provided a diverse range of African American representations that were not normally seen in mainstream, white magazines. By reading Essence, African American women were exposed to positive and empowering representations that differed greatly from the stereotypes used in advertisements to white audiences (Woodard and Mastin 265). However, these magazines did not come without stereotypes of their own about African Americans. Critiques written about issues in these magazines can be found on the right.

 

Links to the different magazines

1. Ebony magazine archives here

2. Jet magazine here

3. Essence magazine here

4. "Black Womanhood: Essence and its Treatment of Stereotypical Images of Black Women" here

5. Criticisms of magazines here 

Coca Cola advertising towards an African American market

McDonald's advertising stereotypes here

 

Pervasive Stereotypes

Niche market advertising was not free of racial stereotypes. In the 1970s, McDonald’s began to create ads marketed towards African-American families to increase their consumer base and make more profit. These ads displayed inherent stereotypes still at play in the advertising industries. In McDonald’s ads for African American families, words like “Makin’ It” and “Dinnertimin” were used where the g was dropped, while ads geared towards a white audience used different spelling. One ad also says “you don’t have to get dressed up, there’s no tipping”, which speaks to the stereotypes of the class status for the audience this ad is trying to reach (Cruz). These ads depict a major problem within the structure of the ad industry- the majority of agencies were still controlled by white men who lacked the experience and knowledge to advertise to African American consumers, in turn basing their ads largely off of racial stereotypes (Cruz). While the 70s saw an increase in diversity in advertisements, they still contained racial stereotypes, and mainstream media did not represent African Americans in wide variety of roles.

It was not until the mid 1990s that multicultural marketing started to become popular. As the demographic in the US was changing, there was a shift away from niche media marketing and towards a multicultural market (Davis 52-53). However, stereotypes are still perpetuated today in the advertising industry, and a move towards a multicultural market does not mean that African American women are represented equally or accurately. Stereotypes born from the past continue to underlie many modern day media products. To learn more about issues that still persist for African American women in advertising today, you can go here.

Sources

“African-Americans: Representations in Advertising.” Ad Age, Josh Golden, 15 Sept. 2003, adage.com/article/adage-encyclopedia/african-americans-representations-advertising/98304/.

Alon, Sigal, and Yitchak Haberfeld. “Labor Force Attachment and the Evolving Wage Gap Between White, Black, and Hispanic Young Women.” Work and Occupations, vol. 34, no. 4, 2007, pp. 369–398. doi:10.1177/0730888407307247.

Behnken, Brian D., and Gregory D. Smithers. Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito. Praeger, 2015.

Cruz, Lenika. “'Dinnertimin' and 'No Tipping': How Advertisers Targeted Black Consumers in the 1970s.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 7 June 2015, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/06/casual-racism-and-greater-diversity-in-70s-advertising/394958/.

Davis, Judy Foster. Pioneering African-American Women in the Advertising Business: Biographies of MAD Black WOMEN. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

“The Mammy Caricature.” History on the Net, Regenery Publishing, www.historyonthenet.com/authentichistory/diversity/african/1-mammy/.

Walker-Barnes, Chanequa. Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength. Cascade Books, 2014.

Wallace-Sanders, Kimberly. Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory. University of Michigan Press, 2009.

Woodard, Jennifer Bailey, and Teresa Mastin. “Black Womanhood: Essence and its Treatment of Stereotypical Images of Black Women.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2005, pp. 264–281., doi:10.1177/0021934704273152.