Advertising and race: “Their fear is that white women won’t buy a product if the girl in the ad is black.”

A young black street vendor selling "acarajé", a traditional type of fritter, in Salvador, Bahia in Brazil’s Northeast. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS
A young black street vendor selling “acarajé”, a traditional type of fritter, in Salvador, Bahia in Brazil’s Northeast. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

Note from BW of Brazil: Today’s piece is actually a follow up to an important piece of research featured here a few weeks back. The study surveyed over 1,500 Brazilians about the representations of Brazilian women in advertising. The results showed that the average Brazilian perceives much of what has been consistently proven here on this blog: black women are invisible in Brazil’s media and that the diversity of phenotypes in Brazilian society are not accurately portrayed in the powerful mass communication conglomerates. Sure, famous Afro-Brazilians like actresses Taís Araújo, Camila Pitanga and Débora Nascimento, singers Preta Gil and Gabi Amarantos along with athlete Fabiana Claudino are symbolic of a small breakthrough, overall Brazilians of visible African ancestry are vastly under-represented in commercials that are highly influential to what everyday people consume. The article goes on to show that in a capitalist society in which more than half of 200 million citizens define themselves as non-white, this could be a costly mistake for advertisers and the business world. No surprise here but still important information.

Mirror, Mirror – Who Is that Woman on TV?
By Fabiana Frayssinet

Carla Vilas Boas is of mixed-race descent – African, European and indigenous – like a majority of the population of Brazil. But she spends hours straightening her hair, trying to look more like the blond, blue-eyed women she sees in the mirror of television.

The 32-year-old domestic worker acknowledges that Brazil’s popular telenovelas have started to include characters like her – people from the country’s favelas or shantytowns, who work long workdays for low wages.

Using the keywords, "atrizes de novelas", meaning "soap opera actresses", a screen shot of the first three rows of photos searching Google Images
Using the keywords, “atrizes de novelas”, meaning “soap opera actresses”, a screen shot of the first three rows of photos searching Google Images

But among the actors and the models shown in ads, “there are only a few darker-skinned people among all the blue-eyed blonds. And you wonder: if I buy that shampoo and go to the hairdresser, can I look like that?” she remarked to IPS. But her hair “never looks that way,” even with the new shampoo or the visit to the hairstylist, and Vilas Boas said that makes her feel “really bad.”

Using the keyword "garota propaganda" meaning something like "poster girl", a screen shot of the first three rows of photos using Google Images
Using the keyword “garota propaganda” meaning something like “poster girl”, a screen shot of the first three rows of photos using Google Images

More than half of the women in this country of 200 million people – where over 50 percent of the population identified themselves as black or “mulatto” in the last census – do not identify with the images they see on TV.

Experts say that because of the prejudices reflected in the choice of actors and models, advertisers potentially lose a large segment of consumers. A survey by the Data Popular polling firm and the Patrícia Galvão Institute (IPG), a women’s rights organization, interviewed 1,501 women and men over the age of 18 in 100 towns and cities spread across every region of the country.

Instituto Patrícia Galvão or Patrícia Galvão Insitutute conducted a study entitled "Representations of women in TV advertising".
Instituto Patrícia Galvão or Patrícia Galvão Insitutute conducted a study entitled “Representations of women in TV advertising”.

In the study “Representations of women in TV advertising”, 56 percent of those surveyed said ads did not show “real” Brazilian women. For 65 percent of the respondents, the model of beauty in TV ads has little to do with the way Brazilian women really look, and 60 percent said they think women get frustrated when they do not feel reflected on TV.

Most ads show “young, white, thin, blond, straight-haired upper-class women,” the study says.

At the age of 17, Karina Lopes feels insecure as a woman. Her body has changed, but not into the shape she sees in the ads offering her clothes, make-up and low-cal yogurt.

“Even if I eat that yogurt every day, I’ll never be thin like that woman selling it,” she told IPS. “You feel bad because that image is so different from the way you look. Normal women aren’t shown on TV.”

Mara Vidal, assistant director of IPG, said “women come in all colors and shapes. We aren’t stereotypes. That’s what the public is saying – it’s not something that women’s organizations or academic studies came up with.

“It’s the public who are saying ‘we want to be better represented in society, not just by one single, universal type’,” Vidal told IPS.

She said she also suffered in the past. As a girl, she didn’t want to go to school because other kids called her “black girl with broom-bristle hair” because of her brown skin and red hair.

“I didn’t start liking my hair till I got to university, when I stopped straightening it,” (1) she said. “My generation wasn’t as aware as people are today. The concept of someone who was ‘good-looking’ didn’t include people with our hair and coloring.”

In the study, 51 percent of those surveyed said they would like to see more black women in ads, and 64 percent said they would like to see more women from lower-income sectors. Brazilian TV and the country’s world-famous telenovelas have gradually started to overcome prejudice and today black or brown-skinned characters are less limited to the traditional discriminatory roles of domestics, family drivers, or criminals. Some have even cast darker-skinned women as central characters. But advertising, unless it specifically targets that segment of the population, still does not represent blacks.

“In an ad for margarine we don’t see black women or happy black families. But in the area of cosmetics we’re starting to see a change,” Vidal said.

For example, there are now lines of products specifically designed for darker-skinned women and shampoos for “curly” or “dark-colored” hair.

Actress Taís Araújo in an ad for L'Oreal
Actress Taís Araújo in an ad for L’Oreal

Meanwhile, advertising by the government and public enterprises has become increasingly “politically correct,” reflecting the country’s ethnic diversity. But that is not happening yet “as much as we would like,” said Vidal. “Brazil, because of its tradition of excluding blacks, has not yet dared to fully show that reality.”

Ad from Banco Itaú (Itaú Bank) advertising the yearly Day of Black Consciousness
Ad from Banco Itaú (Itaú Bank) advertising the yearly Day of Black Consciousness

Renato Meirelles, director of Data Popular, said that exclusion is now hurting advertisers. According to the polling firm, women in Brazil represent 500 billion dollars a year in income and are the ones who decide on 85 percent of what families consume.

Women are not just a “niche market but the main consumer market, and advertisers don’t know how to reach out to them,” Meirelles told IPS.

The idea that “Brazilian women want to be like Europeans is old,” he said. “Now women are proud of their new identity.”

Actress Camila Pitanga in an ad for Avon
Actress Camila Pitanga in an ad for Avon

Factors that have helped boost this new found self-esteem include laws aimed at fighting racial discrimination that have been adopted in recent years and the fact that some 30 million people have left poverty behind and have moved up into the middle class.

According to Meirelles, “the big problem of advertisers and advertising agencies is that they belong to the elite and their decisions emerge from an elite mind-set. That’s why they fail to understand that a new consumer market has emerged.

“Their fear is that white women won’t buy a product if the girl in the ad is black. Few of them worry that black women won’t buy products because the model in the ad is white,” he said.

Actress Débora Nascimento for SEDA hair products
Actress Débora Nascimento for SEDA hair products

“Aspiration has given way to inspiration, where the model represents successful black women. Companies should understand this process of achievement that we have experienced,” he said.

Excerpt from interview with Renato Meirelles, director of Data Popular

by Luciana Araújo

In your opinion, what other elements, besides the male world of advertising creation and the growth in the new role of women in the Brazilian consumer market explains this gap between the advertisements and Brazilian women, that is perceived even by men?

Renato Meirelles – The Brazilian woman is aging, is mostly black and has a lot more curves than the average woman in the world. But advertising agencies work with an ideal of beauty from the past, tall, thin, blond and blue-eyed women. This standard of beauty, which for years was the aspiration of a considerable part of Brazilians, made sense in advertising 20 years ago, under the logic of advertising. But, with the improvement of living standards of millions of Brazilians in recent years, they want to see themselves represented effectively.

But agencies don’t work with this new reality that has as logic the possible aspiration. The woman wants a communication that inspires to improve life a little more, but not to stop being who she is. And when companies sell an aspiration that is far from being desired and possible for this woman, either she gets frustrated or simply concludes that this product is not for her and creates a barrier against it. Therefore, it is not to be politically correct or incorrect, but to have a communication that works or doesn’t. And this new Brazilian woman doesn’t see herself in any type of communication that doesn’t represent her. In the same way that Brazilians take to the streets today to say that politicians don’t represent them, this propaganda does not represent Brazilian women.

Most respondents said they would like to see more black and working class women in advertisements on TV. On the other hand, 67% evaluate that the woman is shown as active and 43% as intelligent. Does this also show a change in Brazilian advertising?

RM – The survey permits us to differentiate the issues of shape and content in advertisements. This search for presenting a smarter woman and that accepts herself, from the point of view of content, starts to exist and is already perceived. On the other, the question of shape, the aesthetic standard, has not progressed at the same rate as the issue of content. So, you see actresses who are saying that they are independent women, who value achievement and merit itself that are rising in life and who see themselves as intelligent women. But valued aesthetic is still that from the past.

Olympic Volleyball champion Fabiana Claudino representing DSW Automotive
Olympic Volleyball champion Fabiana Claudino representing DSW Automotive

And what we have seen is that this is because the elite that approve the ads say: “ah, but this is very ugly,” or “it needs to be a more beautiful thing.” And in view of these elites that approve the ad, beauty still follows the European standard, because they themselves are white, have blue eyes and still speaks to those standards that have always been privileged in the consumer market. So, advertisers and agents understand the new and universal values, of the intelligence, of the independence, of the opinion of this new woman, but at the time of approving the ad they don’t follow this.

This also explains the invisibility of black women in advertising?

RM – If there is a cognitive dissonance between form and content in advertising, it can be said that there was an improvement in the content and there is still a huge lack in form. But that does not justify the racial issue. Blacks are 52% of the population and move some R$720 billion (US$327.5 billion) in consumption per year. And the aspiration of blacks is not be white. So it’s a myopic view of the business opportunities that the black consumer is presented as a maid and not as a woman who decides and is in the job market performing multiple functions. And it is not only a need for identity, but a right that the consumers, thanks to going to the formal job market, want to see themselves in communication. The lack of understanding of this change creates this myopia in the advertising market, which leads to giving less value to the brand and makes the advertiser not optimize his or her advertising investment. This interferes with the construction of the brand and makes businesses have disadvantages thanks to a badly done communication.

Photo taken from article entitled "Futuro da mulher e a nova classe média (Future of the woman and the new middle class)"
Photo taken from article entitled “Futuro da mulher e a nova classe média (Future of the woman and the new middle class)”

In most cases, people who create and approve the ads come from classes A and B (2). And they tend to do things that please them and not to please the consumer. The same thing happens in schools where most teachers bring an academic scholarship that took years to construct and has to do with Brazil’s past. And that knowledge ends up being reproduced. That is changing now because class C is going massively into higher education and bringing them their story. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in 12 years of the Data Popular it’s that it’s much easier to catch someone who came from a lower social stratum and make him or her understand marketing than to make class A understand the people.

Singer Preta Gil for C&W's "Special For You" Mother's Day ad
Singer Preta Gil for C&W’s “Special For You” Mother’s Day ad

But all is not negative. There are already companies that know how to use the current information. Dove, for example, moved forward to speak of beauty in another way. Danone moves forward when using (actress) Dira Paes as the poster girl, as well as C&A, with (singers) Preta Gil or Gabi Amarantos, dialogue with this new Brazil.

Singers Preta Gil and Gabi Amarantos
Singers Preta Gil and Gabi Amarantos

Is it necessary to understand the people and that within these people are black men and women?

RM – Yes, because there’s no way to speak in classes C and D without speaking of blacks. Of every 10 people who left the class D and went to class C, 8 are black. Blacks were largely responsible for the economic rise of Brazil. Although for as much as inequality in Brazil has decreased it is still huge: 3/4 of the classes A and B (upper/upper-middle classes) are white and three quarters of classes D and E (lower classes) are black. So when we speak of classes C and D, we are specifically talking about the black consumer. And advertisers are not seeing this, which is the intention of consumption. With R$720 billion it makes sense to buy thousands of notebooks and laptops. And advertisers won’t look at this?


1. The development of pride and self acceptance is an ever growing trend among Brazil’s women of visible African ancestry. See here and here for example.

2. For an understanding of Brazil’s economic class structure see here.

Source: Observatório da Imprensa, IPS News

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. It is the same here in the USA. Many times if the ads have women (and men) of color then it is never those with very dark complexion. Every skin color of every ethnic group is equally beautiful.

  2. Racists’ behaviour in the Caucasian people is deeply ingrained from centuries of brain-clogging influences from a religion that taught that the Lord-Creator of the Heavens and Earth had a Caucasian son which led to the conclusion that The Creator must also be a Caucasian (a carryover from Greek and Roman mythological gods into Christianity). Anyone who accepted that foolish belief would then treat other ‘racial’ groups as inferiors and not worthy to be respected as are the members of the Caucasian‘race.’ The Caucasian people have been subtly influenced by false religious concepts into believing that it was their god given right to conquer and dominate other ethnic groups. Remember the slogan “the white mans’ burden?” That meant that only the Caucasian race had the superior intelligence to rule the Earth. To those with that mentality, they feel justified in portraying only Caucasian looking people from other ethnic groups in the media. Look at the majority of Spanish language TV shows in the Americas. Only Caucasian looking “Hispanics,” are allowed to be in front of the cameras.

    • Yes, they bring in a “token” dark / Black Spanish or Portuguese speaking person to sing & dance every now & then never as a host. The contestants, the hosts, the guest, the audience, etc. are mostly white looking Hispanics always.

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