The insidious racism in today’s TV ads

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For most of TV history, Black people rarely saw themselves on screen—not on shows, and not in commercials, either. Jason Paul Chambers, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Illinois, still remembers the jolt of surprise he felt more than 20 years ago when, lying on the couch and channel hopping one day, he stumbled upon a Lexus ad featuring a Black couple. “It wasn’t until the 1990s that we got into things like African-Americans being used to advertise luxury brands,” he says.

Diversity in TV advertising has improved in the ensuing years. A recent survey from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, for example, found that 38% of characters featured in advertisements at the 2019 Cannes Lions festival were people of color, compared to 26% in 2006, the earliest available data. Eighteen percent of characters in the ads were Black, and characters of color were as likely as white characters to be featured in prominent visual and speaking roles.

Advertisers have a strong financial incentive to keep investing in diversity: 62% of consumers say that a brand’s diversity or lack thereof impacts their perception of it, according to a 2019 Adobe survey of over 2,000 adults in the US and UK. And 34% say they’ve stopped supporting a brand because they didn’t see their own identity reflected in its advertising. The same survey also found that, despite sweeping changes in the TV advertising industry, commercials on network TV continue to have a lot of cultural impact: 43% of consumers say they say see the most diversity in network TV ads, compared to ads on social media (20%), basic cable (16%), and streaming (13%).

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