Everyday Sociology Blog: Branding Racism

Everyday Sociology Blog: Branding Racism
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By Jenny Enos

In sociology, we often talk about race being a social construct. Rather than a fixed system of classification based on biological differences, racial differences are (and always have been) constructed through social interaction, politics, and cultural meaning. What is included in specific racial categories is fluid and context-dependent, constantly changing over time. Medical and biological scientists are increasingly coming to agree with this sociological understanding of race. For something supposedly so firmly rooted in genetics, there is surprisingly little evidence that race is a good measure of genetic heterogeneity.

When we argue that race is a social construct, we can begin to notice the ways in which social processes and institutions continually negotiate, (re)define, and reinforce race and racial difference. The way corporations brand and promote their products is a particularly interesting way in which meaning is shaped by racial differences. By selling their products to consumers through advertising, corporations attach social meanings to their products. For example, a shoe brand doesn’t sell shoes just because people do need footwear; and the brand sells shoes because they convince consumers of desirability lifestyle related to shoes (eg, life is active, free, “cool” or rebellious). In this sense, brands both reflect our cultural marketplace and influence what we think is desirable and how we create meaning.

Race has long been an issue in advertising, branding, and other forms of public meaning-making. Popular representations of racial difference, such as those seen in advertising, serve to reinforce and stabilize differences between racial groups and to naturalize racial differences. An illustrative example of this is a McDonald’s ad from the 1960s. At the time, companies were trying to expand their consumer base and began including black Americans in their advertisements to appeal to a more diverse audience. In a McDonald’s ad, the text behind an image of a black family enjoying a meal at one of its restaurants says, “Do your dinnertimin’ at McDonald’s,” an obvious and stereotypical reference to the African-American language of the time.

Most recently, Quaker Oats announced that it would replace its 130-year-old Aunt Jemima Syrup brand, which featured an image of a black woman. After public criticism, Quaker Oats was forced to grapple with the fact that the origins of their brand were based on the racial stereotype of the “mommy,” an enslaved woman often portrayed as heavy, domineering, and fiercely devoted to her white household. Ads and brands like these, and the stereotypes they are embedded in, are representations of racial difference that contribute to and help to perpetuate a system of racial hierarchy and classification.

Brands and advertising also contributed to racial connotations by portraying white people. Abercrombie & Fitch, for example, is famous for their advertisements focusing not only on selling clothes, but also on the image of elite whiteness as desirable and aspirational. As Dwight McBride argues in his book on the subject, the company made a brand out of White privilege and turned it into a desirable lifestyle that consumers could achieve through clothing purchases.

Images in catalogs and other advertisements almost exclusively showed fit, attractive white models described as “all-American” and as “naturally beautiful”—entirely erasing any ethnic or racial diversity in the United States. The brand’s deference to whiteness also led to blatantly discriminatory hiring practices for store clerks, which ultimately led to a class-action lawsuit that resulted in a $40 million settlement.

Unfortunately, excluding people of color from advertising is not unique to Abercrombie & Fitch. Recently 1955-1982 after conducting a study of the product catalogs of two major US electric guitar brands, Ali Chaudhary found that blacks were systematically excluded from product images; despite black celebrity guitarists popularizing the instrument at the time. An article published earlier this year sociology forum, argue that these advertisements reflect racist, segregationist ideas about racial hierarchy and difference that were widespread in the era. With almost exclusively white guitarists and the association of electric guitars with white masculinity, the prominent black guitarists who made much of the music of the time became non-existent and irrelevant to the music industry.

All these examples show that almost any product can be labeled and advertised in a way that violates racist stereotypes and reinforces the position of whites in the racial hierarchy. While it may seem like corporations are becoming more socially conscious these days, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that people of color are represented fairly and positively, not only in the ads themselves, but also in the creative process.

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