It’s Time for Beauty Brands to Confront Colorism in Their Advertising

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Decolonizing beauty advertisements is crucial as the industry moves toward greater inclusivity.

Last year’s renewed social justice movement illuminated the responsibility beauty companies have to be anti-racist. Progress is underway, but further reflection is required in terms of marketing, experts say.

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“De-centering whiteness” is imperative, as “this is a multiracial world,” said Nikki Khanna, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Vermont who has written about colorism, particularly in Asian culture.

“In India or in other parts of Asia, for example, white women — oftentimes blonde hair, blue-eyed — are used as the face of products that are marketed to women of color,” Khanna said.

“It’s a problem that goes well beyond skin-whitening and skin-lightening,” she continued. “It’s reflecting cultural norms of who’s considered beautiful, but recreating those as well.”

Amira Adawe, founder and executive director of The Beautywell Project, which aims to address colorism within Asian and African cultures, said companies tend to treat colorism as a “marketing technique to target communities of color.”

“So much capitalism [is] involved,” Adawe said. “Using people of color to make money out of them, to continue to make sure that they hate their skin color and their identities, [companies] market continuously to [people of color]. We’re talking about extremely high levels of hydroquinone and mercury. That hasn’t changed.

“[Companies] know the impact they create — they very well know that,” she continued.

The skin-lightening industry is projected to be worth as much as $12.3 billion by 2027, according to Global Industry Analysts. Last year, companies such as L’Oréal and Unilever announced they would change the language used to market their skin-lightening products. However, according to Adawe and Khanna, the fundamental issues remain.

“Glow is oftentimes used in ads to signify that this is a product to whiten or lighten your skin,” Khanna said, referring to Unilever’s choice to rename its Fair and Lovely products Glow and Lovely. “Even though it’s called Glow and Lovely, every woman knows what the product is. And those products are everywhere.”

Colorism is embedded in the language beauty companies employ to market their products — as well as the visual components. In a report shared with WWD, AI-powered social media analytics platform and consultancy Eyecue found that since 2018, beauty brands have featured almost as many images featuring light skin tones as images featuring medium and dark skin tones combined.

About 20 percent of content posted by beauty brands is created by influencers and users, according to Eyecue’s report. In 2019, darker skin tones accounted for 9 percent of user-generated content. That number increased to 13 percent in 2020, when beauty brands briefly diversified their feeds to reflect the renewed Black Lives Matter movement.

“The most shocking trigger was that for every four lighter-skin-tone influencers or creators that brands collaborate with, [brands] only [collaborate with] one darker-skin-tone collaborator,” said Eyecue founder Carolina Bañales. “When [brands] do work with someone, they feature 40 percent more content of the lighter-skin-tone influencers than of the darker-skin-tone influencers.”

Jean Kilbourne, who started tracking diversity and sexism in advertising more than half a century ago, said when models of color were hired early on, they often were women who, more or less, had white features, like straight hair or light skin.

“They were women of color but not in any major identifiable way. That’s changed somewhat, but not nearly as much as one would hope or expect,” Kilbourne said, citing a February edition of The New York Times Style magazine that featured many darker-skinned models.

The stereotypes of women of color in advertising or the lack of images of them is what one of Kilbourne’s mentors, George Gerber, referred to as “symbolic annihilation,” she said.

“It isn’t just that the images weren’t accurate, aren’t good or are stereotypical in some ways. Worse is there is no reflection at all. That becomes a kind of annihilation,” she explained. “This is true of darker-skinned women. It’s also true of whole groups in the world of advertising that just aren’t reflected at all — the elderly, for the most part, the poor, obviously. It’s not so much that the stereotypes are negative, it’s just that there are no images at all so they are symbolically annihilated.”

In terms of what needs to change, Kilbourne said, “As we’re seeing more change in the culture in terms of more women of color being in positions of power and more visible in the public eye (as in President Joe Biden’s cabinet and administration) then advertisers will become more apt to have more of these images. Advertisers, in my opinion, aren’t known for their courage or for being in the vanguard of social change except sometimes in a kind of co-opting sort of way. But if they feel it is safe, there will be more of it. That, in turn, will help. Advertising is quite important in terms of visibility of people in the culture.”

As language “matters a whole lot” in advertising, Kilbourne said it is important to think about the language to become “more consciousness-raising of the implicit bias that existed forever, and by definition is invisible to those of us to whom it does not apply.”

“It’s in the same way that privilege is invisible to those who have it,” she said. “Certainly, it was not invisible to dark-skinned women who were looking for foundation. Anything that makes us more conscious, makes us aware of it and helps us talk about it is good.”

In February, Ulta Beauty launched a campaign called “MUSE,” an acronym for Magnify, Uplift, Support and Empower Black voices in beauty. Vice president of integrated marketing Karla Davis said the company is determined that the campaign not be a communications approach but a business approach.

The amount of support Ulta Beauty has received in response to the campaign and platform “across all backgrounds, all from all different places has really been unbelievable in such a good way,” Davis said. Initially created to be “a love letter to Black women,” the initiative has resonated with different consumers in different ways. While “feeling loved and feeling seen” has been the response from some people, others see the value of this kind of work and how it creates conversation, Davis said.

Ulta Beauty reportedly plans to invest $25 million to support the platform and other initiatives, including $4 million in marketing money that has been earmarked for its Black-owned brands. Davis said Ulta Beauty will continue its commitment to support Black-owned brands and bring in new ones.

”There are pretty high expectations these days for brands to work more responsibly. It’s really starting to show where they’re putting their dollars more and more,” she said. “That helps that it isn’t just a nice-to-do, but it’s a good-to-do for business.”

Looking to amplify and empower more Black voices with future content, the company aims to set a precedent for other brands. Davis said diversity and inclusion needs to be an underpinning of the industry versus something that happens in a moment.

Some brands and companies Ulta Beauty has relationships with have reached out in support of the MUSE work, others have inquired about how they did this. Davis said the latter has asked, “How did we galvanize the organizations behind this type of work…it’s been great to start telling the story of the traction that this type of work has gotten. It helps to give people more confidence and more data points on how to make this type of work in their space, as well.”

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