Corporate ads said Black Lives Matter. But the industry creating them is nearly all white.

The stunning lack of diversity in the advertising industry goes back decades and those in power have done little to change it. It's time for action.
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A digital billboard in Times Square lights up with a 'Black Lives Matter' message and a pride flag near an American Flag in New York on June 23, 2020.Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images
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By Christopher Boulton, associate professor of communication, University of Tampa

Advertising’s unique ability to persuade by creating the appearance of change through rhetoric, symbols and events has helped corporations and existing power structures conceal and protect white gains and Black losses behind the scenes for generations.

So as Black Lives Matter gained mainstream acceptance in June, brands eager to stay on trend turned to ad agencies to help them join the movement through woke messaging. And though we'd seen similar efforts backfire before — Pepsi’s infamous protest ad with Kendall Jenner in the midst of protests against police shootings in 2017 come to mind — long-standing public pressure campaigns to end commercial monuments to white supremacy (ranging from corporate mascots of happy Black servitude to racist NFL trademarks) were, in fact, finally successful this time.

While these hard-won victories are worth savoring, they are still largely symbolic because it's hard to ascribe them to any true change of attitude; the people spoke, but it was really that money talked. So, when Proctor & Gamble tells its consumers that “Now is the time to be Anti-Racist,” one has to wonder whether the companies and the agencies that produced the ad got the memo, too.

Because, when it comes to feigning change while continuing to marginalize Black lives and maintain white power, advertising has a long record as a repeat offender. And nothing demonstrates that more clearly than the ongoing, striking lack of diversity in the advertising industry itself.

In 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics surveyed advertising and promotion managers in the United States, and found that less than one percent (0.7 percent) were Black — a stark contrast to the 13.4 percent of the U.S. population that is Black. Perhaps more troubling, the number had actually gotten worse: In 2010, the percentage was 0.8 percent.

To find out why, I conducted field work through internship programs at three major New York City advertising agencies. I found three related problems that likely contribute to the problematic, and ongoing, lack of Black advertising managers.

First, white nepotism runs rampant: At the agencies I studied, all 24 of the interns referred to as "must-hires" (which means interns with family connections) were white. In most cases, must-hires are a well-kept but open secret at an organization; their connections are subject to an implicit don't ask, don't tell policy. (Except, this time, I did ask and my anonymous sources told.) And since they are white, their race conceals them like a cloaking device — they aren't subject to questions about whether they got their jobs due to "affirmative action" policies even though "must hire" policies are exactly that.

Second, the qualifications for entry-level positions in advertising can be loose and subjective; it comes down to whether a candidate feels like a "culture fit" rather than objective skills or experiences. As one human resources manager told me, the interview process for such positions feels more like rushing for a fraternity or sorority than interviewing for a firmly conceived job. As a result, “colorblind” whites can’t (or choose not to) see that they are consistently hiring people that look like or come from the same backgrounds, because those are the people with whom they feel the most comfortable.

Third, advertising employees often refer their friends for open positions, which may save the agency the expense of a headhunter and provide the added bonus of a familiar officemate, but also makes for a racially homogenous workplace. Sociologists have long documented how the powerful and well-connected use this kind of opportunity hoarding as a means to conserve power within familial (and thus racial) lines.

All of which puts Black applicants in a tough spot. While Latinos and Asians are also underrepresented in advertising, Blacks stand out in an agency setting — as one of the interns in my study put it — like "freckles." This presents serious obstacles to mentoring and makes Black employees particularly vulnerable to white backlash.

For instance, over half of the white "must-hires" in my study opposed affirmative action, even though they got their own spots through just such a program; these white hires nevertheless complained that Black interns got in "only because" of their race. (Meanwhile, though a smattering of diversity initiatives offered competitive scholarships for minority interns, the must-hires in my study still outnumbered them by a ratio of more than 2 to 1.)

My research only begins to scratch the surface of a deeply entrenched problem — but don't take my word for it. Watch Travis Wood's short SXSW film "Affurmative Action," which mocks how creative companies’ “Meet the Team” pages often feature plenty of dogs ... but no Black people. Or read this open letter from 600 & Rising, a coalition of 600+ Black advertising professionals calling for urgent action from agency leadership — the most important of which being "transparency on diversity data.”

In order to dismantle white supremacy inside advertising, more data is needed to hold ad agencies accountable and yet, despite decades of problems and numerous requests, as of last year neither major industry group — not the 4A's nor the American Advertising Federation — even bothered to track diversity statistics in their industry.

The Pledge for 13 has, in fact, offered to establish a “a hub that tracks the performance and progress of agencies throughout the industry” on diversity goals and instructing participating agencies to commit to achieving 13 percent African American leadership by 2023.

The pressure seems to be working: On the eve of Juneteenth, June 19, 600 & Rising announced that 30 agencies agreed to publicly share their internal diversity data on an annual basis, broken down by gender identity, race/ethnicity, seniority and department. The 4A’s signed on as a co-sponsor and agreed, for the first time, to conduct an annual diversity survey to create industry benchmarks.

But, of course, we’ve been here before.

In 2009, the NAACP launched the Madison Avenue Project and released a damning (if not surprising) report exposing the widespread and systematic under-hiring, under-utilization, and under-payment of Black people across the advertising industry. Not only was racial discrimination 38 percent worse in the advertising industry than in the overall U.S. labor market, but the “discrimination divide” had gotten twice as bad as it had been 30 years before. Months after the report’s release, Adland's own Dan Wieden — who coined Nike's catch phrase "Just Do It" — criticized his own agency for hiring white kids to sell Black culture, asking a room of industry insiders, "How many Black faces do you see here?"

All this pressure didn’t stop the 2011 CLIO Awards — advertising's Oscars — from their tone-deaf promotion campaign featuring a bunch of white guys dressed up like characters from AMC's "Mad Men." (The show seemed more aware of the problems within the industry than the industry: The fifth season of AMC’s award-winning drama, premiering in 2012, opened with three white ad men hurling insults and water bombs onto the heads of Black civil rights protesters — an event that actually happened at Young & Rubicam.)

Meanwhile — as protests continue and brands jump on the bandwagon — majority-white advertising agencies, among the hipster trappings of a progressive workspace, are still hiring predominately white people on the basis of favors, "fit" and friendship. And they're all working to convince us how "woke" our favorite brands are, so that we don't look too hard behind the curtain at how white the people in control of those brands and the messaging around them remain.