Racism has a long history in advertisements, and as unfortunate as it is, such advertisements are still being fed to the masses in the name of marketing
How do you define racist ads? Although there are many instances of racism in advertisements, some are so obvious that they are hard to miss.
A recent advertisement by German automobile giant Volkswagen featuring their new car Golf Mk8 sparked rage and outcry.
In the ad, a huge, white hand flicked a dark-skinned man into a café called "Petit Colon" which can be translated as "Little Colonist" in English.
Moreover, according to some viewers, when the letters of the tagline "Der neue Golf" (The new Golf) faded in, the first ones to do so spelled out the word "neger" which is a German racial slur.
VW gave an apology, but almost grudgingly.
Initially, the company responded by saying that the "origin of the people depicted is irrelevant" and that the firm was against "all forms of racism, xenophobia and discrimination."
They added that they were "surprised and shocked" at how the ad was misunderstood by people.
Later, VW released a second apology stating "without doubt: The video was wrong and tasteless".
VW, ironically, was founded in 1937 under the Nazi regime and used slave labour from concentration camps to build vehicles in its early years.
However, this is not the first time the automobile giant has come under fire for racist content in its advertisements.
Last year, VW apologised after CEO Herbert Diess used the expression "Ebit macht frei", or "Ebit sets you free", at a management event.
Ebit is short for earnings before interest and tax and is a measure of company profits.
The phrase sounds similar to "Arbeit macht frei" (work sets you free), which was inscribed on the gates of Auschwitz and other concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Audi, another German automobile giant, and a member of the Volkswagen group, in an ad three years earlier, compared women to used cars.
The ad ended up angering Chinese consumers and forced an apology from Audi before being removed. Coincidentally, it was produced by the used car division of Volkswagen's joint venture in China.
This VW ad, which has since been withdrawn, is only the tip of the iceberg. Advertising has a long history of racism.
On rare occasions when westernised ads feature non-Caucasian characters, the makers seem to forget that racism and stereotyping are, indeed, real.
Invariably depicting non-Caucasian people as subservient, ignorant and unattractive, such advertisements have prevailed throughout the years despite backlash from the masses.
One of the most common instances of racial profiling in ads is showing a dark-skinned person to portray failure, lack of confidence, and so on.
One of the pioneers of such ads is the multinational company and consumer product giant Unilever.
In the South Asian setting, Unilever's Fair & Lovely is a widely debated topic when it comes to advertisements.
Most of their ads' storyline narrate the struggles of a dark-skinned girl who only experiences success when her skin becomes fairer.
We will not get to the point where diversity is the norm in advertising and racist stereotypes are abandoned until there are more dark-skinned people and minorities working in and occupying senior positions in the industry.
More brands are embracing diversity, and we are seeing work that moves the conversation on.
Ikea's "Hooray! To the wonderful everyday" campaign in the UK, which shows a positively represented black family, is one example. Yet we are still very far from an era of post-racial advertising.
Black people still appear more regularly in advertising for global sports brands than any other category, which is a reductive and dangerous cliché.
Both underrepresenting the black community and portraying them in a stereotypical way has a profound effect on the collective self-esteem.
It creates feelings of isolation and impacts self-belief. If you cannot see anyone who looks like you in the media, your thinking will inevitably be limited in terms of what you can achieve.
Dove's 2017 campaign showing a black woman transforming into a white woman was an eerie echo of those vintage soap ads depicting dark skin turning white.
Today, black culture in the world holds such huge sway that it can no longer be ignored. Brands like Tommy Hilfiger have benefitted from associating with black culture.
Tommy Hilfiger first began its unlikely relationship with hip-hop in the '90s when musicians began wearing the label.
The brand then gave away trunks of clothes to any rapper with a recording contract.
This, in turn, triggered a backlash when rumours circulated that Hilfiger was racist, rumours that were subsequently investigated by the Anti-Defamation League and found to be without merit.
Recently, the heinous murder of George Floyd at the hands of an American policeman named David Chauvin stirred protests all across the US, demanding systematic racial profiling and police brutality to end. Although this incident does not concern advertisements directly, the elements of segregation based on skin tone actively contributes to the fuelling of such disgraceful notions in the media.
This incident has also gone to show the evident hypocrisy of many celebrities in the Asian diaspora for their underlying obsession with fair skin and internalized racism.
"But imagine, if you lived in a country where the colour of your skin got you killed for driving, jogging, sleeping, yelling, parking, babysitting, sitting in a van, selling CDs, selling cigarettes, opening the door, walking at night, wearing a hoodie at night, holding a toy gun, lying on the ground, being homeless, being in a dark stairwell, holding a cell phone, having a broken tail-light, exercising horses, having a bottle of pill, shopping at Walmart, holding a BB gun at Walmart, eating ice-cream in your own house and shopping, you would say that is a lawless country," American comedian Hasan Minhaj said in an exclusive YouTube video of his show Patriot Act, as photos of all the black people killed due to lawlessness in the US filled the screen.
Minhaj also spoke out about Indian celebrities endorsing whitening products while leeching off of the entertainment from black people. "Thank you, Britain," the comedian said, implying the years and years of colonializations of the South Asian region that resulted in the ultimate obsession with fairer looking skin.
According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, people who identify as African-American or black, account for only five percent of those working in advertising, public relations and related sectors.
Clients are also to blame. So many marketers choose white people to represent their brands over any other ethnicity, fearing their target audience would not be able to identify with someone from another race.
It is a bizarre mind-set that does not manifest to the same extent in television and film, and it is preventing us from moving forward.
The fight against racism is as much of the Brown community, and other communities of darker skin, as it is of the blacks'. Overthrowing notions and ingrained ideologies dating back to the days of colonization will not only help us move forward with a reviewed mind-set for the internalized racism, it will also help us free the next generation from the shackles of worthless discrimination based on the colour of one's skin. And overtime, we can certainly hope for and work towards eradicating the colour aspect in ads of skincare products, and rather influence the corporations to focus on skin's health.
On both the client and agency sides, advertising needs to bring in all the diverse talent that is available, in front of and behind the camera. Then – and only then – can we begin to solve advertising's race problem.