In this op-ed, writer Alisha Acquaye explores how brands are profiting off the backlash against racist advertising and continuing to harm people of color.
Two distinct forms of racism have been perpetuated by beauty brands recently. The first involves racist language, references, and stereotypes that are ridiculously blatant and ignorant. The second offense centers around product ranges with a stunning lack of diversity. Both actions lead to well-deserved backlash from marginalized communities — particularly people of color.
The pattern of less blatant — but still problematic — racism has been repeatedly addressed, and occurs when brands neglect to cater to all complexions. With each new foundation and concealer launch, customers are keeping a close eye on shade ranges. Recently, many companies have been found lacking in this process, particularly when displaying swatches that seem to ignore dark skin tones. It leaves the impression that creating makeup for light skin is prioritized over accommodating medium and dark complexions. It perpetuates the idea that dark skin tones are abnormal, complicated and burdensome, thus difficult to understand and include.
Then, there’s overtly racist language. Last fall, Tarte made a racially insensitive joke against Asian people on social media, using “ching chong” in a meme. The persistent use of the n-word by white influencers and brands has occurred time and time again, overlapping in the fashion industry as well. This week, digital entrepreneur and Buro 24/7 cofounder Miroslava Duma came under fire for posting an offensive card from Russian couture designer Ulyana Sergeenko. Both women received immediate backlash for condoning the racial slur and apologizing in a manner that many deemed disrespectful. And Italian brand Wycon Cosmetics became the latest offender when they named one of their gel nail polish shades “Thick as a n***a.” Identifying the color they assigned to that name is no guessing game.
Are they sincerely oblivious to their discriminatory and racist behavior, or is all of this a way of manipulating our emotions and psyche — to receive attention and possible profit from our pain?
Are these brands playing a huge prank on communities of color? Are they sincerely oblivious to their discriminatory and racist behavior, or is all of this a way of manipulating our emotions and psyche — to receive attention and possible profit from our pain? In a time when most beauty and fashion brands are coloring their social media and products with diversity — whether out of genuine desire to cater to everyone, capitalist necessity, or to avoid losing consumers — and social media is quick to call out major brands for insensitivity and negligence, it amazes me that some companies still make such careless mistakes.
Unsurprisingly, people were furious with Wycon’s tasteless branding, but this time, there was the additional annoyance of feeling purposefully played for profit. “In this age, triggering black Twitter is the new creative digital marketing. I just want y’all to know they are purposely exploiting our anger for press,” @thekayanova tweeted.
Effective marketing works several ways, but let’s focus on these two distinct emotional marketing tactics: happiness and anger. Ads can either pull at our heartstrings, making us feel happy, sentimental, empowered or recognized, or it can tap into the fiery pits of our soul, influencing us to feel enraged, disgusted or disturbed. The impact is the same for either method: The ad is successful if it can leave a memorable impression on us, an emotional response we can’t easily shake.
It is mentally and emotionally taxing when people of color have to repeatedly call out brands whenever they commit an offense against our identity, culture, and complexions.
What these racially problematic ads (and many others from last year and beyond) share is their ability to ignite an emotional response out of communities of color — especially on social media. It’s normal to get defensive when your identity or community is attacked, appropriated or degraded on a public platform. Nonetheless, it has become easier to arm ourselves against these careless blunders by taking to Twitter and Instagram. But could some brands be intentionally insulting us to rack up the traffic we give them by angrily resharing, retweeting, and commenting on their pages?
In an age of constant, public conversation, there is no justifiable excuse for brands that are willfully ignorant to stereotypes and offenses that can trigger marginalized communities. It also signals that most companies need to adopt inclusive hiring strategies to avoid these mishaps. These are serious problems that we must continue to eradicate. However, the Internet is a massive place, where good and bad news continuously goes viral and claiming lack of knowledge should no longer be an excuse.
We are placed in these teaching positions, against our will, whenever they disrespect us.
One Twitter user, @allysvinyl, presented the idea that Wycon may have intentionally committed this act to gain relevance and popularity amidst a sea of bustling beauty brands. “No one is checking for y’all that’s why y’all pulled this stunt. You really need the attention… looking at that nail polish I can see why.”
What leads to further speculation that this may have been a premeditated move is Wycon’s main excuse in their apology. “We admit our serious mistake and we recognize we were wrong taking inspiration from names or famous songs, out of context.” The song in question is DBangz’s “Thick N***as and Anime Tiddies.”
Surely, this excuse sounds familiar to some of you. How often have you heard a white person excuse themselves for using the n-word because it’s a song lyric? That is the perfect safety net for deciding to include the n-word in a nail polish title — because it’s simply quoting a song, rather than an original statement. It’s the same excuse that was dredged up by Ulyana in her apology. “Kanye West is one of my favorite musicians, and NP is one of my most favorite songs,” she wrote in a since-deleted Instagram post. “And yes, we call each other the N-word sometimes when we want to believe that we are just as cool as these guys who sing it.”
What some white people fail to comprehend is that quoting a rapper, song or anything else doesn’t justify the use of the word.
No matter how loudly we shout — or how many times — it’s meaningless if the people that need to listen most aren’t paying attention.
It is mentally and emotionally taxing when people of color have to repeatedly call out brands whenever they commit an offense against our identity, culture, and complexions. We are placed in these teaching positions, against our will, whenever they disrespect us. Lately it seems like the majority of our activism involves schooling privileged or willfully ignorant folks, but they neglect to fulfill their part by taking notes on how they can improve. Thus, within a week, month, or even a few days, we find ourselves back at the head of the classroom, raising our voices and stabbing our touch screens with the ferocity of a frustrated, unheard educator. No matter how loudly we shout — or how many times — it’s meaningless if the people that need to listen most aren’t paying attention.
As conversations on intersectionality, feminism, and inclusion are restructuring our societal and cultural ideologies, big brands and new companies have to pay attention in order to fit in. Now, they’re the ones that are forced to feel uncomfortable and change — instead of people of color and other marginalized identities being forced to reconfigure ourselves. Consequently — and rightfully so — the brands that centralize inclusivity are the ones that become successful, distancing themselves from the mistakes that problematic brands make. This is why we praise Fenty Beauty for developing 40 foundation shades.
But for every Fenty win, there are many instances where brands might actually be profiting off backlash now. By causing a controversial moment, gaining traffic, and then solving the problem or promising to do better, the brand may be, in a twisted, self-sabotaging way, trying to develop an element of trust between consumers. Redemption. In the piece I referenced above, Derek Rucker mentioned ways negative emotions can be effectively triggered in commercials:
“Negative emotion can garner consumer attention and can also lead them to seek a solution for the cause of the emotion. If a brand presents a problem that elicits a negative emotion, and the brand offers the solution, this can persuade consumers to adopt or use a brand.”
If these actions are insidious, intentional insults to profit from our pain, then reacting means falling into the traps they set in place for us.
When these companies cast themselves as the problem to induce an emotional response, then release an apology along with improved products to serve as the solution, we may consider giving them a second chance. This is a manipulative move that stimulates us to react and emote, while the brand’s notoriety and currency boosts. “So when we kick off about the latest brand that deems it acceptable to release their latest “mistake” campaign. We are acting as walking billboards and unpaid PRs for them. What does that sound like… Media slavery?” @Munroebergdorf tweeted.
As consumers, we want to feel a sense of agency over our choices, that the things we like are original and unique, and that the money we’re spending is justified. We want to feel like we instinctively choose the product — not that the brand incepted its views onto us. Thus, if we believe we have enough influence over a problematic brand’s refreshed outlook and inclusive products, we feel in control.
“I say marketing strategy because that is exactly what this is,” Munroe continued on her Twitter thread. “These brands KNOW exactly what they are doing when they disseminate ad campaigns like this. They KNOW that black people will react in horror, rightly so, but in doing so we are giving them predictable reach.”
Sometimes moving in silence and secrecy can be more effective than shouting, especially when the oppressor is waiting for you to crack.
I’m torn about this, because calling out brands or public figures when they verbally harm us is important to progress and change. But if these actions are insidious, intentional insults to profit from our pain, then reacting means falling into the traps they set in place for us. Munroe suggests we arm ourselves by sharing information amongst friends and in our communities instead of publicly calling out the brands on social media. Sometimes moving in silence and secrecy can be more effective than shouting, especially when the oppressor is waiting for you to crack.
Words are so powerful in branding, whether it tries to break or build us up. I noticed that Wycon changed the title of their black gel polish to “Black Power.” It’s an apology that not only mocks our slogan, but also attempts to give us back something we already had.