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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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Marketing racism: representations of skin colour in soap advertising throughout history

Contemporary advertising in the beauty industry continues to use racial stereotypes to market its products. These stereotypes have deep historical roots in the discourse of the Transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. This essay starts off with an examination of a Dove advert that caused a lot of controversy in 2017. It looks into why the imagery in the advert was so controversial. A major legacy of the slave trade was the enduring racism and Eurocentrism – or ‘whiteness'. Throughout the essay, a number of soap advertisements are analysed, revealing a constant theme of the ability of soap to turn blacks into whites. An examination of these images highlights the role that slavery and colonisation played in establishing social hierarchies based on skin colour. This essay refers to colourism as the manifestation of the psychological damage caused by centuries of enslavement which created social hierarchies based on skin colour, that maintain an invisible presence in our psyches. Hence, contemporary advertisements reflect the perpetuation of colourism within the African Diaspora and other people of colour across the globe. Ultimately, the essay aims to explore colourism as a legacy of enslavement and colonisation and as an internalised form of racism.

Racial stereotypes continue to be used in contemporary advertising despite perceived social progression. In 2017, Dove released an advertisement for a body wash which received a huge influx of criticism due to its racist undertones. The 3-second video ad features a woman of African-American descent removing her top, which is the exact same colour as her skin, and revealing a white woman underneath, supposedly after using the Dove body wash. Whilst Dove apologised for their mistake and admitted they had “missed the mark”, it was also argued that the intention of the advertisement was to communicate that the soap product was targeted towards all types of people. This argument was justified by the fact that the remainder of the ad features the white women taking off her shirt and turning into a Middle Eastern woman. However, this was still not well received by the public, presumably due to the adverts references to Imperial advertising. Naomi Blake, an African-American model, was one of the first to pull Dove up on their mistake, posting a compilation of screenshots of the ad on Facebook. It is not only offensive because it shows a black woman turning white, but because of the similarity of the image to so many others in soap advertising throughout history. As such, it seems that the legacy of stereotypical representations of skin colour continue to exist in contemporary advertising. This raises the questions of how blacks have been represented throughout history and why this representation has been so popular in visual culture. Through an examination of other advertising and popular culture, it is clear that deep-rooted racial stereotypes have appeared since the slave trade. To attempt to answer this question we must look back at advertisements in print media to understand the existence of racism.

- Construction of whiteness is dependent on blackness. The ideology of white supremacy included the association of Blackness with primitiveness, lack of civilisation and dirt.

One reason Dove's advert was so controversial was because of its striking similarities to an advert for Pears' Soap from the 1890s. Pears' were one of the first toiletries companies that used the difference skin colour in its advertising of soap. The advert juxtaposes two before and after images to show a narrative of the effects of using Pears' soap. The image is set in a Victorian bathroom, the innermost sanctuary of domestic hygiene, hence setting the scene for the cleansing ritual that is about to unfold.  The first image features a black child in a washtub, his wide-eyed gaze suggests the bath is a foreign element. Meanwhile, a white child, dressed in a stark which apron that forms a dramatic contract with the black child's skin, towers over the bathtub whilst holding a glowing bar of Pears' soap. The second image shows the transformation of black child's skin to white by the use of Pears' soap. Hence his skin is cleansed from the very stigma of racial degeneration. However, his face remains black, and he becomes somewhat of a racial hybrid brought to the brink of civilisation. The glowing of the bar presents soap as a fetish commodity, allegorical of purity and imperial progress . The image reflects the sentiments of the time in regard to skin colour. To be black was to be dirty, ugly, evil, deadly, devilish. To be white was to be clean, beautiful, good, lively and godly.  This reflects the scientific racism of the time that claimed that the white race, was the original and superior race. Another Pears' advert from the same time features a well-known white figure , Admiral Dewy, in maritime uniform.  Again, the scene takes place in a Victorian bathroom, a symbol of hygiene and therefore upmost refinement.

The Pears' ad reads:

The first step towards lightening The White Man's Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness.  Pears' Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place — it is the ideal toilet soap.

‘The White Man's Burden' refers to a poem by Rudyard Kipling, which legitimises white rule over the barbaric indigenous people of the British colonies.  This is affirmed by the images background which shows a white woman in Victorian dress handing a bar of Pears' soap to a black figure. The figure, who crouches on his knees as a sign of his inferiority, is depicted naked and with unruly hair to highlight his ‘savage' nature. As such, soap becomes a tool to ‘civilise' the savage.

Similar representations of blacks existed in the advertising of soap across the rest of Europe. A French advertisement from the 1930s for Savon Dirtoff features some very similar imagery, where again blackness is associated with dirt. The poster shows a black figure washing his hands, which turn white with the use of the product. He declares, ‘Le Savon Dirtoff me blanchit!' – The Savon Dirtoff turned me white! Again, the binary opposition between white and civilisation and black being associated with savagery is present. The soap was not designed for use by Africans but, as the poster notes, pour mechanciens automobilises et menagers – for French auto mechanics and housewives. Such images showing ‘black people dramatically losing their pigmentation as a result of the cleansing process' were common in soap advertisements.  During the 19th and 20th century, the use of the black African body to show the cleaning properties of soap was acceptable. However, only the promise of lightening skin would have been acceptable of advertising in Africa. Some historians argue that precolonial African conceptions of beauty favoured lighter skin tones.  However, when comparing this particular image to the Dove advert, it is clear that racial hierarchies established during the slave trade and colonialism cemented the supremacy attached to lighter skin.

It is important to note that all these images were created after the abolishment of slavery in 1807, and the subsequent emancipation of slaves in Britain in 1838. The origins of colourism however, begin in the “pigmentocracy” of the slave trade. On the plantations, slave owners often granted more privileges to those of lighter skin tones. Hence, all advertising produced during the period reflected the ideologies and perceptions of skin colour that derived from plantation culture. The attitudes represented in the Pears' adverts have shaped contemporary society's perceptions of race and have had a profound influence on consumer culture and societal perceptions of beauty. A common theme between these various adverts is the subject of the commodity being advertised – soap. The advertising of soap emerged at the time of a new commodity culture. Never before had products been mass marketed in such a way and reach such a differentiated mass of the populace.  The growth of the advertising industry was concurrent with the spread of racial ideologies of the time.  Brands were able to ‘packet, market and distribute evolutionary racism' on a large scale.  Many household brands at the time took advantage of various racial stereotypes to sell their products. McClintock refers to the mass marketing of racism as ‘commodity racism'. McClintock claims that commodity racism surpassed or replaced scientific racism, which first emerged during the 18th century, due to its mass accessibility. Class control and the imperial civilising mission of washing and clothing the savage was embodied in a single household commodity – soap. Pears' soap appealed to consumers by sending messages that the soap, "had the power to wash black skin white... while at the same time keeping the imperial body clean and pure in the racially polluted contact zones".  Hence, it is clear that advertising has a deep link with racism, what cannot be explicitly said, but is commonly known.

Within the new era of commodity racism emerged new ways of representing the black figure as grotesque, influenced by popular social representations. The figure in the image has exaggerated features – large red lips, flat nose, bulging eyes , bright white teeth and curly hair. These characteristics are typical of the black caricature of the time, also known as ‘darky' iconography. Such images existed to confirm the social order in which black people were delimited to. The striped trousers adorned by the black figure are reminiscent of those worn in minstrel shows, a form of entertainment which came about during the 19th century. The show features comedic skits, acts and performances that mocked people of African descent. Minstrel shows lampooned the supposed stupidity of black people. Even after the abolishment of slavery in 1807, keeping in mind these adverts were circulated in the 20th century, the intellectual capacity of black people was still frequently questioned. The shows were performed by white people in blackface, a form of theatrical make-up used by non-black performers to represent a caricature of a black person. Black people were characterised as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish and happy-go-lucky and aloof. Common sketches featured stock characters such as the slave and the dandy, which were then represented in various commercial advertisements. An advertisement for ‘La Savon Heve' (1896) features the two minstrel characters of Chocolat and Foottit, who performed in the Paris circus during the early 20th century. Chocolat's character was consistent with the imagery and prejudices of the time – silly, childish and friendly. In this particular poster, Foottit is depicted scrubbing Chocolat's face white.

Throughout 20th century America, advertising continued to use stereotypical images of African-Americans. With this emerged the mammy archetype, a U.S stereotype for a black woman who worked in a white family. Their duties included preparing meals, cleaning homes, and nursing and rearing their owner's children. She was an idealised figure of a caregiver: amiable, loyal, maternal, non-threatening, obedient and submissive. The mammy was also depicted as a say woman – devoted to her owners and her primary goal was to care from their needs. The mammy figure was born on the plantation in the imagination of slavery defenders (using in pro-slavery campaigns), but she grew in popularity during the period of Jim Crow in America. The mammy image was used in advertising to sell almost any household item. This included breakfast goods, beverages, sewing accessories and even soap and detergents.  An advertisement for Lux detergent circulated in the 1920s features a typical mammy figure - portrayed as an older woman, overweight and with a round, black shiny face. The advert also features the caricature of the Pickanniny – a dark-skinned child of African descent. The advert plays on derogatory descriptions of African American hair – particularly the texture being likened to ‘wool'. An advert for Stainlgo also utilised the caricature of the Pickanniny to sell its detergent product. It was common for this figure to be depicted in a state of being threatened or attacked by animals (especially alligators […]). The figure is presented as juvenile, of colour, and resistant if not immune to pain. The genitals and buttocks are often exposed, and not infrequently targeted for attack by animals.   From these examples, it is evident that racial stereotyping in the advertising of soap was present across the globe in England, Europe and America.

The ideas that colonisers supported were justified by the images used in advertising that portrayed native people in Africa, Asia and Australia – as savage and uncivilised. Similar representations of skin colour spread to advertising in Australia. The civilising missions of the anti-slavery movement transgressed and justified the colonial invasion of Australia. As Africans were attempted to be ‘civilised' during the Atlantic slave trade, so were Indigenous Australians. A soap advert for the brand Nulla Nulla was circulated during the 1920s at the peak of the White Australia policy. The product's slogan reads ‘Australia's White Hope, The Best Household Soap'. Underneath the slogan is an image of a black female worker. She wears a ‘kingplate', a breastplate awarded by white authorities to Indigenous people they deemed honourable, which reads the word ‘DIRT'. A white hand hits the head of the black woman with a nulla-nulla. This image is bordered rather ornately by more nulla-nullas (clubs used by Indigenous Australians for hunting) and is accompanied by the phrase ‘knocks dirt on the head'. The advertisement suggests that the soap is a good product as it can clean even the dirtiest of things, in this case, the black woman. Again, the ad plays into the stereotype of ‘the dirty black' and ‘the clean white'. The physical act of hitting the black person on the head is comparative to the physical measures taken to ‘civilise' Aboriginal people by white authorities. Hence, the image reflects the race-based thinking that existed during the White Australia era. The impact of these advertisements contributed to the inequality of non-whites worldwide, and they still impact the ideas of beauty in the early twenty-first century.

Dove is not the only example of contemporary advertising to use racial stereotypes as a marketing technique. In 20, Nivea released an ad which shows a well-groomed and clean shaven African American man throwing the mask of another man with an unkept beard and afro. The slogan reads ‘Re-civilise yourself'. Again, Nivea has taken the notion of the African as the savage that is rooted in the slave trade and used this stereotype in their advertising. As such, it's message is very similar to that of the Pears' advert previously discussed, as it uses soap as a tool to ‘civilise' the savage. Advertising continues to propagate degrading stereotypes about the supposed nature of African people that have existed since the slave trade. Another advert released by Nivea in 2017 features the slogan ‘White is Beauty'. Whiteness is presented as the social normal to which everything else is marginalised. Whiteness and purity is the marker against which all other cultures and groups, the ‘other',  are compared to . The ideal of whiteness being more superior and the epitome of beauty is still being conveying in advertising of the 21st century. The #Invisible is somewhat poignant in this campaign, as subliminally it infers the invisibilisation of the legacies of colourism since the slave trade. Commodity racism still exists in society today. Race is still utilised as a means to push products and services, both implicitly and explicitly, to consumers on the emphasis of racial difference.

There is evidence that the legacies of the slave trade remain in today's marketing communications. The use of racial stereotypes in advertising has become somewhat of a trend in contemporary marketing. Davis argues that marketing reflects social beliefs, which are legacies of racism the slave trade.  Despite our perceived social progression, whiteness continues to structure many of our representations, sometime completely blind to us. Parker suggests this blindness is due to the multitude of advertising that contemporary society is exposed to on a daily basis during the 21st century.  Burton argues that the idea of whiteness as pure has been so socially ingrained and has such deep historical roots in the slave trade that it often goes unrecognised and therefore unchallenged .  Till social beliefs regarding skin colour change, it is likely that race will still be used as a marketing tool., Therefore, it is important to continue to scrutinise and question the undertext of what is being marketed in the advertising of contemporary soap and hygiene products.

Through an examination of soap advertising throughout history, it is evident that race has continued to be used as a marketing tool throughout history. Contemporary advertising from brands such as Dove and Nivea continues to use racial stereotypes to market products, the roots of which clearly lie in the discourse from the Transatlantic slave trade and colonialism.

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