Marketing techniques concerning people of color have improved significantly from the blatantly racist executions of the past. Yet, the modern-day marketing practices of major international brands such as Dove (see video), Nivea, Fair & Lovely and Pepsi have recently stirred controversy and been criticized as racially offensive.

A critical analysis of 75 academic studies and books covering periods from the 1800s to the present, published in the Journal of Marketing Management, questions whether marketers perpetuate racism by selling “whiteness.”

The study takes a broad look at marketing practices including marketing research; product and service development, branding and positioning; market segmentation and targeting practices; pricing strategies; distribution; and marketing communications activities like advertising, promotions, displays, events, public relations and selling techniques. Grounded in Critical Race Theory, Whiteness Theory and relevant models of privilege and oppression, which point to the existence of racial hierarchies in society, the article explores:

  • How whites and people of color are visually represented in marketing efforts – past and present;
  • How minority consumers and merchants may experience discrimination in the marketplace;
  • What roles marketing professionals of color play in the industry.

Is racism in marketing normal?

Marketing is not merely a tool of commerce, but is also a potent social influencer which conveys and supports societal norms and values and disseminates them in conspicuous manners across social, cultural, political, economic and psychological spectrums. Marketing efforts like advertising, which are conveyed through traditional and digital media channels, are influential in spreading racist, sexist, classist and other ideologies in a manner which is highly visible, ubiquitous, and accessible to populations. An association between racism and marketing can be made given the marketing industry’s reliance on popular media to convey marketing messages and images to society. Critical Race theorists and other scholars assert that racism is a normal condition in society with deep historical roots. Social beliefs about race and racial hierarchies contribute to marketing thought which in turn influence marketing decisions and practices within marketing organizations. According to the literature, there are many examples – historical and contemporary – of racist marketing practices including:

  1. Human zoos, exhibits and displays in Europe and the United States in the 1800s – 1900s which presented people of color as subhuman or animalistic for entertainment and educational purposes.
  2. Negatively stereotyped and/or marginalized representations of black, Latino, Asian, Native American, Muslim and other racialized groups in marketing materials and common consumer products from the 1800s to the present.
  3. Aggressive marketing of products in minority communities which contribute to diminished quality of life such as alcohol and tobacco products; low-nutrition foods and beverages; high-interest loans and similar services.
  4. Racial profiling and biased treatment in the marketplace directed at consumers and merchants of color.
  5. Marketing research and decision-making which lacks inclusion of the perspectives of minority peoples.
  6. Marginalized roles of marketing professionals of color, whose career opportunities are often limited to minority-focused efforts and/or limited decision authority in marketing organizations.

Can society’s embracement of multiculturalism diminish racism in marketing?

Although contemporary marketing executions are far more diverse and less overtly racist than in the past, this study’s findings reveal common practices which tend to confer superior status on white people, standards and values, while associating inferiority with people of color and racialized groups. This phenomenon is observed in the United States, Europe, Asia and other parts of the world. For example, marketers often present white skin and other facets of “whiteness” as markers of civility, desirability, socioeconomic success and other positive aspects. Illustrations include marketing (since removed) for the Nivea brand, promoted with the phrase “White is Purity”, and the Fair & Lovely skin-lightening cream which is heavily promoted in countries with black and brown populations in connection with an economic empowerment theme.

Although multiculturalism and anti-racism appeals have been embraced by a number of high-profile global marketers, the impact of these efforts is unclear, and indeed, where organizations do consciously attempt to address the issue of racism in their advertising e.g. Procter & Gamble’s ‘The Talk’, they still face controversy because there are some who believe that the message of the advert continues to stoke tension based on race. In the meantime, marketing gaffes with racially insensitive overtones continue to occur with alarming regularity in the marketplace. It has been suggested that the increased participation of marketing professionals of color in important decision-making roles in marketing organizations could improve marketing practices and alleviate such blunders.


Read the original research article: Davis, J.F. (2018). Selling whiteness? – A critical review of the literature on marketing and racism. Journal of Marketing Management, 34(1-2), 134-177.

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Judy Foster Davis

Judy Foster Davis

Judy Foster Davis is a Professor of Marketing and Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, MI. Her research concerns IMC strategies and policies; and historical and multicultural marketing topics with emphasis on black marketing professionals. She is a graduate of Howard University (B.A.) and Michigan State University (M.A., Ph.D.).  Dr. Davis is the author of Pioneering African-American Women in the Advertising Business: Biographies of MAD Black WOMEN (published by Routledge, 2017).

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.