Roger Ebert Home

Black Out: The Disappearance of Black Couples in Advertising

Have you been watching TV at all these days? If you have, odds are you have seen fewer and fewer Black couples living and enjoying life together in commercials. Seeing a Black man and a Black woman together is almost as rare as a UFO, Bigfoot, or unicorn sighting. There are many explanations for this phenomenon, but whatever the reasons, this disappearing act by advertisers sends the wrong message to Black couples. Where is the love for Black love?

I have been watching a lot of TV lately, and I’m always looking for families who look like my family, but I just haven’t seen it. It appears as if the Black couple has been replaced by an interracial couple, racially ambiguous couple, or just eliminated, making them all but invisible. Just in writing this article, I was bombarded with commercials that featured interracial couples from the likes of Pizza Hut, Sleep Number, Jimmy Dean, and pharmaceutical companies whose products I can’t pretend to pronounce.

While my observations are anecdotal, they are not a mirage. Pepper Miller, author of Let Me Explain Black Again, wrote about this phenomenon in a 2017 article about how “mixed-race couples have become the new norm.” Deborah Block wrote about the new normal in her 2021 Voice of America article, “Americans See More Interracial Relationships in Advertising,” citing that it is good business. Melanie Shreffler, editor of Marketing to the Emerging Majorities, when speaking about the growth of minorities, commented that marketers "aren't turning out multicultural ads for the good of society, they recognize there is money involved. If you skip out on a group that is going to be half the population by 2042 — good heavens, who are you marketing to?" This concept holds for the growing interracial couple segment.

However, the focus on interracial or racially ambiguous couples is misleading and even hurtful to Black couples who have been seeking a little love from the advertising community for quite some time. This new normal is not without reason, so let’s examine a few.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of interracially married couples has increased from 310,000 in 1970 to 2,340,000 in 2008, accounting for 0.7% and 3.9% of the total number of married couples in those years, respectively. Justifiably, this trend has advertisers seeking to appeal to this growing market. The interracial couple allows marketers to be relevant to the growing interracial segment while simultaneously signaling that their products work for both Black and White consumers. The racially ambiguous ads are somewhat tricky because consumers may not feel specifically targeted but don’t feel excluded either. Both approaches work from a budgeting standpoint and keep general market advertising agencies at the helm of strategy and development. Why are ads specifically targeted to Blacks when the general market ads can also speak to them? These approaches effectively limit or eliminate the need for target marketing to underrepresented groups.

Visual diversity signals to consumers that companies are aware and sensitive to consumers demanding diversity in corporate actions, from advertising to suppliers to their employees. However, visual diversity can be misleading, showcasing a diversity that isn’t really there. For example, Blacks make up over 13.6% of the U.S. population, but Black CEOs still account for less than 2% of companies in the S&P 500, and that is an all-time high. Visual diversity allows people to see themselves, for companies to create a perception about their brand, and for some brands to create an aspirational expression of where they want to be. Still, the visual expression alone doesn’t tell the entire story.

In a 2009 news article, “Race Becomes More Central to TV Advertising,” Shreffler comments, “Advertising is aspirational. It's who we want to be, a lifestyle we want — not always who we are." It is one thing to be aspirational but another thing to distort reality and not having Black executives at the advertising decision table exacerbates the situation.

In a January 2023 Forbes magazine article, Interpublic Group reported that only 2.6% of its executives were Black while 86% were white. What may seem aspirational to those determining what ads are produced may not be aspirational to many Black folks. Renowned advertiser Donny Deutsch commented on that controversial biracial Cheerios commercial, saying, “Great advertising holds up a mirror to who we are and where we’re going.” It must be recognized that historically, it was taboo to showcase and celebrate interracial couples. Including these relationships in commercials, TV, and movies is important, needed, and welcomed. My problem is that its depiction is overwhelmingly lopsided and is more about where we are going and a world many would like to see than who we are.

The disappearance of the Black couple is disturbing in so many ways. First, Black couples fail to see themselves and consequently feel devalued by greater society. Second, Black children are reminded that, supposedly, Black men don’t desire Black women, and Black women don’t want Black men. This absence of Black couples perpetuates the stereotype and the myth that we don’t like each other, and that is far from the truth.

More Black men indeed marry someone of a different race than Black women by 50%, but those numbers alone are deceiving. According to Pew Research Center, “24% of Black men who were newlyweds in 2017 were married to someone of a different race or ethnicity, compared to 12% of Black women.” What these numbers also say is that 76% of Black men who marry get married to a Black woman, and 88% of Black women who marry get married to a Black man. The backlash surrounding interracial couples should have nothing to do with the fact that people of different races love each other.

Interracial couples should be able to love whomever they choose without the hatred and venom that frequently come their way. The challenge is the important inclusion of interracial couples in the advertising mix should not mean the death of Black couples, especially if advertisers are letting the numbers drive their decisions. The Selig Center reports, “In 2020, African American economic clout energized the U.S. consumer market as never before. The buying power of African Americans rose to $1.6 trillion, or 9% of the nation’s total buying power.” All the more reason to accurately depict Black love.

If researchers were to poll Blacks on the subject of being able to see themselves in loving relationships in commercials, researchers would find Blacks would welcome and reward companies who accurately portray Black love in advertising. As a former advertising executive, I have seen firsthand how many companies fail to do the in-depth research they do for the general market with “minority groups” such as Blacks and Hispanics. The tendency is to try and develop a profile that will catch the majority of that sub-group, and advertisers miss the opportunity to segment the segment. Black folks are not monolithic, and displaying a wider range of Black life would be good business.

Companies and advertisers often use the research they like versus the research they discover. I remember arguing that Black people are tired of seeing themselves frequently dancing in commercials. The research we had showed that Black people like dancing, so advertisers would use that one fact to justify frequently showing Blacks dancing. To them, this said advertisers and companies understood the Black consumer and were being true to the research. However, the research also revealed that Black people like showing other aspects of their lives. When you do better research, it is quite okay to use it.

How often have you heard, “I was the only Black in my group, division, or company?” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that, I would be seriously rich. The advertising industry has had a diversity problem for a long time, and by some accounts, it is improving. However, better is relative, especially if working off a small base. I’m sure industry executives know this, but it feels like they are ignoring the fact that one Black person cannot and should not speak for an entire race. And when advertisers don’t have any Blacks at the table, summoning whatever Black they can find (mailroom, janitor, or person on the street) to be the deciding vote is probably not a good idea. As a side note, I don’t buy the belief that the advertising industry can’t find Black talent because they are not there, but that is a conversation for another day.

It is interesting how companies profess that they are guided by the numbers yet blatantly ignore them. Facts and figures should not be the only things that guide decisions, nor should trends and growth. The fact is interracial relationships are growing and should be celebrated. While such relationships may not be desirable to some people, a diverse world where those relationships are accepted is very desirable. But let’s not ignore that Black love is alive and well. Show both, at least in a proportion that looks like the reality of the lives Blacks live.

As consumers, we don’t have to sit on the sidelines. We must let companies know what we expect from them and support those brands that show the kaleidoscope of Black Love. Just something to ponder.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Sing Sing
Family Portrait
National Anthem


comments powered by Disqus