“Advertising itself was born racist”: Brazil’s advertising industry continues to value whiteness, but black presence has recently increased, what does this mean?

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Note from BW of Brazil: Last month, on December 24th, made 20 years since I developed an interest in Brazil. And in the two decades that have gone by, some things have changed while others have remained, basically, the same. Some of my very first memories of visiting the country are, interestingly, tied to airports. As airplanes have taken me to and from Brazil and various cities and states throughout the country, these locations for national and international travel provide yet another area of which one could probably develop an entire study.  

In my first writings about my experiences in Brazil, one of the things I discussed was the difference in demographics that I noted between the airports of the largest city in the United States, New York, and that of Brazil, São Paulo. Having spent time on my trip to Brazil in New York’s JFK airport, I noticed a truly international vibe, with people that seemed to be from every country in the world walking around, rushing off to flights, waiting in lines, etc. In contrast, in São Paulos international airport, Guarulhos, I was struck by the lack of diversity in the place. Looking around the airport on that first trip back in September of 2000, it seemed as if I had landed in Europe rather than the largest, most populous country in Latin America. Where are the black people?”, I thought.

Even back then, Brazil had the reputation of being the country with the ‘the largest black population outside of Africa’ (I now know that may or may not be true), but judging from what I saw at that airport in 2000 and for several years after 2000, you wouldn’t get this idea if you were to judge from airports such as Guarulhos, Congonhas (also in São Paulo), or Tancredo Neves Airport in Belo Horizonte. This changed when I arrived in Salvador, Bahia, but then, Salvador has an enormous black population. But if São Paulo‘s black population was supposed to be somewhere between 30-33%, where were these black people in Guarulhos?

In the years since then, that has in fact changed. Somewhere between 2005 and 2007, I did remember starting to see a steady increase of black Brazilians in Guarulhos, both traveling and working in airports, and it wasn‘t just me that noticed this change. Other images that often caught my attention at Guarulhos airport were the banners, posters and enormous billboards and advertisements I saw in the airport as well as on the streets and freeways that led me out of the airport when I would catch a cab or a bus into the city. As my first trips to Brazil were made mostly to Bahia, I would make a yearly bus trip from Guarulhos airport, which is actually located in the suburban city of Guarulhos, to the Congonhas airport, located in the city of São Paulo, where I would catch my connection flight to Bahia. 

Seeing the advertisements on those connection shuttle bus rides was always very revealing as to how Brazil wanted to be seen around the world, considering that São Paulo is a city that attracts a lot of international business people. So what conclusions would one make if he or she were to judge a city such as São Paulo if they were to consider only the advertisements? I‘d say that São Paulo seemed to be a city where people with a European appearance would feel right at home. I can still vividly remember seeing those huge billboards of model Gisele Bündchen as I exited the airport. Cant remember the products she represented, but it hardly matters. People like Gisele, and men and women who look like her, were plastered on posters, banners and billboards all over the city, and this was also true in Salvador, which made for a stark contrast when compared to most people I saw in Salvadors streets. 

Brazil - Advertising - Supermodel Giselle Bunchen advertises lingerie on a billboard

Again, this is not simply my opinion. The whiteness of Brazils advertising industry has been thoroughly documented. Businesses wanted their products promoted by white people and they weren‘t shy about this preference. I still remember a few years back when a black advertising agency manager (a rarity) in São Paulo told me that one of his clients specifically told him to remove a black man from the draft of an ad that his agency was creating for the company. The black man was the only black person in the ad and, even being in the background, the client made a point of requesting that he be removed. Last year, President Jair Bolsonaro made a point of having a commercial that prominently featured black people in a commercial for the Banco do Brasil bank taken off the air. It seems that advertising is an area where attitudes havent changed much in Brazil. 

Well, in fact, that’s not necessarily so. I have to admit that, recently, I HAVE noticed a change. I can’t say with certainty when I started to notice this, but I am starting to see more black faces in Brazil’s advertisements than I’ve ever seen in my 20 years visiting and living in the country. Now dont get what Im saying twisted. Advertising is still overwhelmingly white, but again, when youre accustomed to seeing almost no black faces, seeing more than a few at a time will catch your eye (well, if youre one who pays attention to such things as I do). 

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So, whats really going on? Why is it that it appears that Brazils advertising agencies seem to be trying to diversify their market? For the past several months, I’m seeing black faces everywhere. Modeling for clothing brands, university brochures, drinking Sprite, even offering medical services as doctors. As I know that Brazilians clearly have discomfort seeing “too many” black faces at a time (see here and here), I DO wonder how black something has to get before people start tripping

Lets be clear here, before anyone starts singing any songs about overcoming, let‘s stay rooted in reality here. I ALWAYS see such changes with a grain  of suspicion, like, whats really on here? I said it when two straight black women were crowned Miss Brasil, and  knowing the deceptive nature of white supremacy, I see the same thing going on here. For me, its simply a business decision. If  ‘these people’ are saying they don’t see themselves in more ads or that they won’t buy if they don’t see more black faces, show them more black faces…and keep that money coming in. Problem solved. If I were a betting man, that’s how I see business execs dealing with the issue. Nei Lopes, an Afro-Brazilian writer, composer and researcher on black/African culture sees it the same way. For him, this rising number of black Brazilians in advertising “has more to do with consumption than  representation.”

This is what people have to understand. Just because a system will allow an occasional a black model, a black CEO, or even a black president, it doesn’t mean we’ve arrived. It just means that the system will need more black folks to help maintain the system.

In the interview below, college student Stéphani Souza discussed a study she conducted on racism in Brazilian advertising. She came to some of the same conclusions as I did. Check it out. 

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Stéphani Souza

Stéphani Souza: “Advertising itself was born racist” 

The 21-year-old student from São Paulo, Stéphani Souza, denounced racism in advertising at work for Anhembi Morumbi College, where she studies.

An advertising student at Anhembi Morumbi, 21-year-old Stéphani Souza chose as a theme for a semesterly work, racism in advertising, where she created a denunciation campaign, which ended up going viral on social networks.

Previously, she did a study to prove that the criticism addressed was well founded, and summoned by Facebook black men and black women who would like to participate. She got a good number in of people from São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte. “As time was short, we couldn’t take photos with everyone,” she explains. Check out the interview she gave to the blog Cachos e Fatos:

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Sabrinah Giampá – Tell me about your work

Stéphani Souza – The work was simple, you should look for a racial ethnic subject, find a fault and give a solution through ads. In the case, whenever I can, I am commenting or posting things about racism, so this work fell like a glove to me and my group (Caroline Mendonça and Victória Ventura, Marcelo Abdelmassih) was super supportive of the idea. It was not difficult to create this concept, just walk the streets of São Paulo you find most ads without black people.

I never felt represented in advertising. As a child, I believed I would be beautiful only if I was blonde, had a nice body and long hair. I started straightening my hair at 7 years old. I went through a lot of aggressive hair processes to control my root, and I almost went bald twice, when I ended up in depression. I bought Capricho magazine weekly and yearned to be like those girls, I wanted that kind of ideal boy, featured in the magazine, would like me.

Sabrinah Giampá – As a black woman, do you feel represented in advertising in general? Did this question that made you choose the theme of the campaign?

Stéphani Souza – Yes. I never felt represented in advertising. As a child, I believed I would be beautiful only if I was blonde, had a nice body and long hair. I started straightening my hair at 7 years old. I went through a lot of aggressive hair processes to control my root, and I almost went bald twice, when I ended up in depression. I bought Capricho magazine weekly and yearned to be like those girls, I wanted that kind of ideal boy, featured in the magazine, would like me.

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Today, I realize that things are slowly changing, but they are. The black movement is gaining voice, we are regaining self-esteem, feeding our children positive self-acceptance stimuli. I believe that the current change is not just about black people, but we are confronting advertising as a whole, questioning the established standards of beauty

Sabrinah Giampá – And how, even then, before studying advertising, do you remember the presence of black people in this type of advertisement? Do you think anything has changed from your childhood to adulthood.

Stéphani Souza – The black guy who appeared most on TV was the one from the C&A commercial, and yet, he was seen as a joke among my friends. It was impossible to see messages in the city on billboards, magazines, let alone TV, saying my hair and color were beautiful. It didn’t even cross my mind to wear my hair natural. Today, I realize that things are slowly changing, but they are. The black movement is gaining voice, we are regaining self-esteem, feeding our children positive self-acceptance stimuli. I believe that the current change is not just about black people, but we are confronting advertising as a whole, questioning established beauty standards, because advertising is a dictator of fashion and behavior.

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We easily catch ourselves wishing for the latest releases featured in the campaigns. I study and work with it, I know this is how it works. My question is: why not seek to sell reality? Why be ashamed to show what we really are instead of making unhappy people seeking to fit into a standard totally outside of their genetics and essence? We can be black, white, thin, fat, tall and short. There’s no problem with this. The consumer’s mind is changing, and we advertisers need to adjust to this, especially in order to sell more than an illusion. We need to create feelings and empathy in people, sell more than one product, people need to feel represented. They need to see themselves in the brand, not see what the media say they should be, you know?

Sabrinah Giampá – What conclusion did you draw from this work?

Stéphani Souza – My conclusion was that advertising itself was born racist. In all their history, black people who have some prominence in the area are rare within the agencies. This is fact, and is proven through studies. Another very important thing I have concluded is that agency owners do not believe in blacks as consumers. They believe that blacks want everything that whites have, so they use that image more. And that is what needs to change. One study conducted a research in Veja magazine from 1985 to 2005. During the field research, they analyzed 60 copies of the weekly magazine, which found 1,158 ads with a human figure, of which only 86 had one or more blacks, which is equivalent to 7% of the total. Regarding the number of actors, they quantified 3,186 of which only 156 were black, or about 5%. They analyzed the numbers year by year, noticing a slow and gradual increase in the number of ads with blacks. From 3% in 1985 to 2005 with an insignificant 13%, it took 20 years for the number of advertisements with black actors to grow by only 10%.

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Sabrinah Giampá- You talked about black people inside the agencies, I would like you to talk about your perception of how they are portrayed in the few ads where they appear.

Stéphani Souza- Although the presence of black people in Brazilian advertising has increased in recent decades, it still leaves much to be desired, not to mention that it is always a stereotyped or pro forma image, the representation of blacks in advertisements reflects the persistent racism of Brazilian society. Black people are athletes, they are needy, they are different, they are manual workers, but they never appear as rich executives, expensive perfume models or members of a successful family! Then comes our question: Does the black not sell? Are blacks not the target audience of the brands? And our work has shown us that advertising thinks not. So I decided to create these ads as if they were protests (and they were nonetheless) to show us in this way that blacks want to be represented in the ads, that blacks wonder why there are so few of us out there. And the unexpected repercussion of my work has just shown that not just a few think so! I read an interview, where a renowned publicist said, “In commercials, people want to see themselves represented as beautiful, rich, and powerful. And black people are poor, my love.” If a reputable advertiser thinks this way, imagine his agency.

Source: Cachos e Fatos

About Marques Travae 3472 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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