Monday, July 16, 2007

Are Beauty Brands Racist?

I wasn't at all surprised to read that French courts found L'Oreal guilty of racial discrimination. In hiring saleswomen to demonstrate and promote their Garnier Fructis shampoos, the company stipulated that the women be between the ages of 18-22, size 38-42 and BBR, a shorthand for "bleu, blanc and rouge" (the colors of the French flag), a codeword meaning white. When recruiters recommended that the company choose non-white saleswomen, they were laughed at and told to tell the applicants that the list was already full.

Take a quick look through at the beauty advertisements in women's magazines and you'll notice that there are very few non-white models. If it's an ad for a body moisturizer or a face wash and there's a group of women, an African American or Asian girl might slip in, but otherwise it's a sea of smiling white faces with glowing hair and beautiful skin.

When advertisers and brands cast for models, there are four different categories: general market, which refers to any model who is white or does not have strong enough ethic features to identify her as non-white, African-American, Asian and Latina. (One note- I'm referring to ads that will run in the U.S. and Canada. When casting for other countries, there are different categories).

The choice of which race to use in each ad is dependent on a few factors. First, the brand thinks about who the target market is. If they notice sales are lagging among Latina women, they might push for a Latina model. Next, they take into account where the ad will run. If it's targeted at African American women, they're likely to run it in publications like Essence and Ebony and they'll choose a woman of African descent. Finally, they consider the product and what it's supposed to do. If it's a product that promises volumizing, they're more likely to choose a woman with straight fine hair than one with coarse, thick hair, and are more likely to pick a white model

The default is always general market, which is why you see so few non-white women in beauty ads.

I have a few theories for why this exists, and why L'Oreal would want to hire only white saleswomen.

The first is that as a society, we're not as colorblind as we claim to be. Subconsciously, I think a lot of people, if not all people, look for visual clues to understand what products for them and what places they belong and feel comfortable. Sadly, race is one of these external cues that many people use in processing an individual advertisement.

Advertisers understand that when flipping through a magazine, they have just seconds to grab a reader's attention to convince them to read what you have to say and motivate them to buy the product. If the reader gets the impression that the product isn't for them because the model looks nothing like them (again, due to a number of factors including race), they're not going to stop and learn about what you're selling.

I think L'Oreal had the same thought when hiring saleswomen, that it would take extra effort to convince white French women that Garnier shampoo was for them if someone with a very different hair type and texture was selling it. I'm not at all saying that I think this is acceptable, I just have a hard time seeing how it's different from L'Oreal hiring white models 95% of the time for their advertisements in non-specialty women's magazines.

I think this is a self-perpetuating situation, where marketers continue to hire women on the belief that women are only attracted to ads featuring models of their race or ethnicity, and magazine readers don't pay as much attention to ads that feature models of other races because they assume they're not targeted at them.

Hopefully L'Oreal will learn their lesson and will be more conscious about having a greater variety of women representing their brand, but I'm not optimistic about seeing any major changes. It's depressing to think that in 2007, a model's race can be such an issue, but it seems to me that the practice of beauty brands hiring predominantly white models and spokeswomen isn't going away anytime soon.


Katherine said...

Gah, self-perpetuating cycles. At any rate, lately I've been noticing a lot more ads around Boston featuring young Asian women...all to do with healthcare, for whatever reason (Planned Parenthood, government urging people to get insured). My friend says it might be because of the new Japanese pitcher that the Red Sox got.

An Aquarian Thought said...

It bother’s me that non-whites even bother to fight for representation through these companies that want nothing more than non-white money! I’m glad that L’Oreal was “slapped on the wrist”, but non-whites should really focus on supporting independent companies that are happy to represent the underdogs.

Great post!

Katherine said...

Sorry, I realized I should clarify my comment a bit--I myself am ethnically Asian, so I may have noticed those ads because the women look like me (visiting China is always bizarre for me--I'm American, but over there, for the first time, everybody looks like me!) Another possibility, though, is that any ads featuring non-whites will attract my attention because they are different from the norm. Maybe ad companies should consider that sort of draw.

In response to an aquarian thought, I'm conflicted between wanting to buy the best product available for my money and supporting smaller, independent companies with better (professed) ideals.

ambika said...

The flip side of this phenomenon is that until recently, women of color did not tend to exhibit the body dysmorphia, eating disorders and other issues in anywhere near the percentages that white women display. I know, growing up, I tended to disregard advertising *especially for beauty products*, because it simply didn't apply to me.

K-Spice said...

on a related note, I am a "white" woman of Italian heritage. I have olive/tan skin, and have a very difficult time finding makeup dark enough to match my skin tone. The stores near me tend not to sell any colors darker than "medium" or "beige," which are like chalk on my skin. I guess this seems like a good idea for them, since I don't live in a particularly diverse area and they probably don't sell too much "dark" makeup, but are they maybe being racist? or just not trying to accommodate persons with darker skin tones (which may or may not include minorities)? am I taking this too personally???

Anonymous said...

well, i'm black and i read magazines like vogue and nylon and stuff like that, as do many other girls of other races, and i'd appreciate not having to pick up an entirly different magazine to find products that work for my hair or skin tone. maybe white's the default, but you think there'd be more hiccups in the system to account for everyone who reds these "white" magazines.

Anonymous said...

Hi Meg,

I live on the Indian Subcontinent and watch (too much!) Indian TV. I can tell you that there are a shocking number of "fairness" creams being advertised by all the major companies, including Garnier. These products all promise that your sad, pathetic life which is caused by your dark skin will completely turn around - you will become successful in your career and more importantly, love life - if you just use this cream to get whiter skin.

I'm going to leave this contentious and complex issue of fairness creams aside for now. But I must point out that Garnier's other skin-care ads (the ones which use "Indian" girls at all) STILL feature girls who are so fair as to barely pass for a normal Indian. The only thing that tags these girls as Indian is their uniformly blue-black hair (another beauty "ideal" here).

The rest of the Garnier ads prominently feature white Europeans, especially the girls, who are almost always blond.

So you can see that Garnier in India is at best tapping into, and at worst promoting, an mythologized image of female cleanliness as equated with fairness.

Food for thought. Judy

organic girl said...

This is infuriating. On a similar note Cindy Crawford's face is splashed all over billboards in
Guatemala. Personally, I think large corporations have the time and money to find models of all different ethinicities to represent their brand.

Ms. New Beauty said...

Great post! I agree with your analysis, but I would actually push it a little further. Instead of marketers simply using the model as a cue to who the product is intended for, I think this use of white women as a default model is simply another expression of the Western standard of beauty. I'm sure a study would find that even the white women models all fit a certain appearance standard i.e. fairer skin, blonde hair, thin waist, busty, etc.

Marketers rely on this standard because that's what they think that all women, regardless of race, are aspiring to. And, on some levels, it's true. Women of color want to be lighter, curly haired gals want it to be straight, curvy women want to be thin.

The Home Spa Goddess said...

L"Oreal is an enormous company with many brands. All of their products are not meant for everyone. They have divisions and brands and plenty of ads that depict women of color, DARK women of color. Especially for their H.I.P. line which is for darker skin tones. They also have a black hair care institute in Chicago.

The reps and the people who wrote that ad are the jerks, not the entire Loreal corporation. Yeah, it slipped past and was published, but their behavior doesn't make me feel like every ad today is aimed at "white girls".

Ads today are WAY more diverse than they have ever been. The bottom line is when it comes to ads there is one color, green. If I have a product that I think one group is going to purchase more than another group, that's who I'm going to feature. Sure, there are products that all races can enjoy, and anyone can buy this shampoo, but who ismost likely to buy this shampoo? Majority rules.

Anonymous said...

I’m glad that L’Oreal is finally pulled up for their obvious racism. They show only white models on all their ads in India! How stupid can they get?!