What Does Black Visibility Really Look Like?

The reality, and lack of, are troubling

Every once in a while, an absence of data can paint a much clearer picture of an issue than the information actually provided. Take, for instance, a recent study released by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. To gain a better understanding of how race and gender are currently represented in advertising, the institute analyzed 251 ads that were submitted to Cannes Lion in 2019. Of the sample, only 18.2% of the featured characters were Black.

Within that small pool, only 31% were women. The results are even more troubling when you break down how these characters are portrayed (hint: not very positively). Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the institute, also noted that Black characters were often stereotyped and presented as “less professional,” while their white counterparts were twice as likely to be seen in an office setting. 

But even in its thoroughness, the study still leaves a host of unanswered questions regarding representation: How many of these Black actors were considered light-skinned or plus size? Were any of them disabled, transgender or queer? Did the few visible Black women have coarse hair, and if they did, how were they depicted? Blackness consists of so many intersecting identities that the concept of visibility is as complex as the community in question. 

If good marketing is about making connections with potential consumers, then understanding the nuances among those consumers is vital for any brand seeking to connect with Black communities. Creating ads that reflect a genuine awareness of the target audience is the difference between representation versus merely engaging in tokenism. 

Blackness consists of so many intersecting identities that the concept of visibility is as complex as the community in question.

But this is easier said than done, apparently. A recent survey conducted by the Burns Group asking 500 Black Americans about their experience with advertising illustrates that implicit bias remains a stubborn problem. Colorism and dated tropes are still prevalent. In recent years, companies like Dove and Nivea have had to apologize for campaigns that ostensibly promoted a preference for lighter skin. The latter released a particularly egregious ad in 2017 for its “fairness cream,” which included a visual of a dark-skinned Black woman’s skin actively lightening as her youthful glow was “restored.” Nivea adjusted the spot by removing the special effect, but its stance on beauty standards—that ultimate beauty lies in fairer, lighter skin—remains clear. These depictions are both unsatisfying and play a major role in how a company’s relationship with race is perceived, for better or worse.

Not everyone is at a loss as to how to do representation right, though. Tommy Hilfiger and digital agency Possible’s well-rounded 2018 campaign for the designer’s adaptive clothing line not only made Black disabled models visible; it also centered one of the spots on a Black woman, who got to authentically voice how the disabled community relates to fashion. And Fenty Beauty continues to recognize the vastness of the community it caters to by using its platform to elevate dark-skinned, plus-sized, disabled and non-binary Black models. 

If these brands make it look easy, it’s likely because it is: When you remove the mythical notion that “universal appeal” is somehow synonymous with lightness, thinness, ability and certain genders, then true visibility begins to look much more like the world around us.

Until that happens, marginalized consumers will look to other brands to meet their needs—a mission that gets increasingly easier as the presence of independent sellers continues to grow, promoting their presence with targeted ads in spaces like Instagram and Facebook. And the thing is, everyone loses out, because solving the lack of Black visibility is a path toward better representation for all communities. If we want it to, our future can be a world where marketers cater to the beautifully complex humanity in us all.

Click here to read more of this special series: Black Is the Answer. Black Is the Future.