Americans See More Interracial Relationships in Advertising
A happy interracial family hugging each other while wearing apparel from clothing retailer Old Navy. A smiling Black man giving his white girlfriend an engagement ring in a State Farm insurance ad. And a biracial couple and their kids on a road trip in a vehicle made by Hyundai.
These are among the increasing number of advertisements selling everything from cereal to prescription drugs that portray the American family in ways few companies and advertising agencies would have dared a generation ago.
More than 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriage, a growing number of ads feature interracial couples with biracial children.
In Alexandria, Virginia, Kelly Thalman, who is white and a single mother to a biracial child, is glad to see the trend.
“It makes children who may look a bit different than their Caucasian peers feel that they’re represented, as well,” she said. “When my son watches an advertisement during a children’s show, I want him to see a mom and dad who look like his mom and dad,” (who is Black) “and not just Caucasian families.”
“One of the big cries has been (to see) more diversity,” said Brando Simeo Starkey, a writer for The Undefeated, a website that focuses on the perceptions of race and culture. “I think this is a good thing and a sign of progress.”
But he said he wonders why many interracial ads focus on white and Black people and not other minority groups.
Mark Jones, president of Jones Advertising in Seattle, Washington, said his agency tries to reflect multiculturalism in its ads.
“It’s a conscious decision, and we’re trying to better represent America,” he told VOA.
It is also smart business.
“It’s the brands wanting to let customers know they are listening and sensitive to their needs, many of whom are not Caucasian,” said Larry Chiagouris, a marketing professor at Pace University in New York. And “part of it is not wanting to be called out by some activists as being oblivious to people of color.”
Interracial advertising sometimes sparks an ugly backlash.
In 2013, a Cheerios cereal TV commercial featuring a Black and white couple with their daughter drew an influx of racist and other negative comments.
More recently, the State Farm engagement ad received negative comments on Twitter.
“This is disgusting, and nobody wants to see this,” one user wrote.
Positive or negative, companies know they are going to get a reaction to their interracial advertising, explained Subodh Bhat, a marketing professor at San Francisco State University in California. He said that while the ads may attract consumers from biracial families or relationships, they also pull in customers whose values align with the diversity in TV commercials and other advertising.
“The public is no longer simply interested in which product might be slightly better,” Bhat said. “They also want to feel good about the company’s values.”
Even so, while researching advertising with mixed-race couples as recently as 2018, Bhat discovered that “ads depicting Black and white couples elicited more negative emotions and attitudes toward a brand than comparable ads showing same-race couples.”
Not necessarily a mirror
While interracial ads may reflect an increasingly diverse America becoming more of a melting pot, they are not a mirror on society, according to Morgan State University Professor Jason Johnson, who is currently doing research on interracial advertising.
Johnson notes that 70% of interracial commercials from the past four years show a white man with a Black woman. The reality, he said, is a Black man with a white woman is more common in America.
He said such ads are not directed just toward interracial consumers and that many still cater to racial biases and narrow comfort zones.
“Ads showing a white man with a Black woman are soothing to white people because it makes them more comfortable than seeing a Black man with a white woman,” Johnson said.
Progress may be incomplete, but Chiagouris predicts Americans “will start to see even more biracial couples in advertising” and that over time, “you might find less commentary on it” as it becomes the norm.
Kelly Thalman hopes the trend continues. Watching a television show with her son, she said it would be “a welcome sight” to see all kinds of people in TV commercials and other advertising.