By Katie Dirks, Ad 2 National Secretary and Sr. Marketing Coordinator at Remedy Health Media
In the spring of 2017, AAF and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. commissioned a study among millennial women on the impact of advertising, news, reality television, and other media have on perceptions of African-American women, The study, “From Bad Girls to Housewives: Portrayals of African-American Women in Media,” was administered by the University of Missouri School of Journalism, The quantitative data from the study supports the need to portray a more balanced view of African-American women in media.
The initiative is a continuation of the 2015 white paper, Reality TV: Entertaining, But No Laughing Matter, which examined the state of African-American images in media, their effects on public perception, policy, and the role that people of good will can play in driving change.
During the panel discussion hosted by AAF, Zeta., and ADCOLOR September 21, 2017 in Washington, DC,, moderator Kendra Hatcher King, VP of Marketing Engagement at SapientRazorfish and National Director of Social Action for Zeta, led the audience through the findings of the 2017 study.
Overview of the research:
The study found that African-American women were more likely to believe there were more negative depictions of African-American women in the media than their Caucasian counterparts, who were more likely to view depictions of African-American women in the media as neither positive nor negative.
At the same time, African-American women were found to believe the depictions of African-American women in the media were accurate.
One reason why the study found such a negative perception among African-American women about depictions of themselves in the media is the mix of media this group consumed. African-American women over-indexed in their consumption of unscripted TV shows, which are known for their dramatic casting and incendiary scenarios. Even if one wanted to look at other television programming for representation of African-American women, they’d have few options: 62 percent of African-American women on primetime TV are characters in sitcoms.
The study found that the most positive depictions of African-American women were in movies and films. Social media was also found to be a source of positive depictions of African-American women. One reason study participants reported more positive depictions of African-American women in film and social media is because they are both opt-in media channels. Consumers watch movies and use social media seeking positive imagery, so it follows that consumers will report more positive imagery on those channels.
Caveats and Biases:
Panelist Dr. Charisse L’Pree Corsbie-Massay, Assistant Professor of Communications at Syracuse University, addressed some of the ambivalence in the research, noting that some study participants may have opted to give a neutral opinion of depictions of African-American women in the media so as not to seem racist. Participants’ perceptions might also have been biased more positively if they were primed with positive examples of prominent African-American figures, like Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Beyonce. Research shows that priming people with these positive images dramatically softens their perceptions of negative depictions of African-Americans in the media.
Corsbie-Massay described media in three ways:
- As a window into what you don’t know;
- As a frame that tells you what’s important;
- And as a mirror that reflects norms and tells you what’s expected of you.
“For better or for worse, how certain groups are depicted in the media gets normalized,” Corsbie-Massay remarked. “Things become normal and aspirational because that’s what we see.” This can be problematic as certain stereotypes are perpetuated through the cycle of “escape to entertainment.” Shows get racier and more dramatic to increase ratings — better ratings draw more advertising — and those shows end up continuing to be funded and watched.
“Unfortunately the end of the day,” said panelist and Lionsgate Producer Dana Gills, “the only color we care about in the media industry is green.”
What Women Want:
When asked what they would like to see more of in the media, African-American women who were surveyed in the 2017 study said they wanted to see more balanced depictions of themselves. Physically, African-American women wanted to see more diversity in the skin color, hair texture, and body shape of African-American women in the media. They also wanted to see more African-American women in decision-making roles, rather than in tired — or worse, harmful — stereotype roles.
So where do we go from here?
Panelist Candace Queen, senior digital designer at SapientRazorfish and founder of Blacks in Advertising, advocated for retention of people of color in advertising and media. Digitas / SapientRazorfish, HP, and other big brands actually require agencies of record to have a diverse team of creatives.
Gills reiterated there are so many more opportunities for representation in media beyond the roles of actor or director; the industry needs more people of color to have a hand in all stages of television and film production, and to have mentors to model the way.
Panelist Erin Horne, co-founder and CEO of Black Female Founders also emphasized the importance of mentorship programs, and noted that HR was a good place to initiate diversity initiatives. “After all, when HR tells you to do something,” Horne mused, “you have no choice.”
In addition to mentorship for people of color in creative and media roles, King stressed bringing representation to the table at all levels. According to 2017 statistics from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, of more than 8,000 executives in advertising, PR, and related fields, only 93 were black women. By welcoming more people of color into career paths in media where they might grow into leadership roles, and in the meantime, by allowing lower and mid-level talent to lead, be present, and be involved through the entirety of a project, the industry can begin to infuse better representation into the images it produces.
Consumers can help to change the narrative, too, offered panelist Saidah Grimes, Esq., Ms. Black Maryland USA. Consumers can vote with their dollars to support programming with positive, balanced portrayals of African-American women and other groups, and boycott programming that gets it wrong.
Signs of change:
Despite the media industry’s long road ahead toward including and portraying diverse groups in a balanced and positive light, there have been some recent successes. For example, several older films and television programs have been re-cast with more diversity, like the Power Ranger Movie (Lionsgate, 2017) and The Wiz Live! (NBC, 2015).
Want more? To view the panel discussion in DC, click here. The discussion in New York is available here. National Media Literacy Week is the first full week in November. Visit https://medialiteracyweek.us/ and https://www.medialiteracyweek.ca/ to learn about the issues, and support representation and diversity in the media.
Katie Dirks is the Secretary of Ad 2 National and Sr. Marketing Coordinator at Remedy Health Media. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.