DEAR ADVERTISING, I’M STILL WORRIED ABOUT THE WHITE ELEPHANTS IN THE ROOM

Image from the Floyd McKissick Papers — Durham, North Carolina

The way this year has been set up, there are few choices left but to confront the elephants in the room head-on. I’m calling on all marketing professionals and similar creative industries to think critically about the white elephants that are still sitting pretty, while they damage the rooms we serve.

The following is an analysis of the ways our industry is both complacent about and constrained by the same systems born of racism and white supremacy that the movement for Black lives constantly struggles against. It’s time to acknowledge our reality and stop dragging our feet.

1. The racial makeup of the advertising industry tells us that we are pretty damn far from doing our part in fighting against the white structures and standards that define us. We can’t speak to a more equitable world if we don’t reflect it ourselves.

Diversity and inclusion departments are akin to band-aids over bullet wounds. The real problem is the culture that is cultivated within the walls of predominantly white ad agencies. Let’s call a spade a spade — there are not enough Black people being hired, period. Even if hired, Black employees are rarely in positions of leadership or with decision-making ability, which is critical for change.

I’ve heard that “it’s hard to find those who are qualified”. Meanwhile, I’ve run out of fingers to count when white mediocrity is accepted. I’ve heard the overuse of “diversity of thought” time and time again, which is a concept that sabotages the fundamental need for diversity informed by culture, race, sexuality, and socioeconomic class. We will not accept any more excuses.

As agencies remain predominantly white spaces, it’s allowed white people and their fellow skinfolk to become rosters of yes-men for each other, without realizing their lack of impartiality in rooms that require collaboration and an equal share of voice.

As a result, Black employees aren’t being nurtured and the industry isn’t doing nearly enough for Black success. Unconscious code switching is exhausting, being hit with microaggressions then having to continue working closely with said microaggressor is exhausting, being spoken over, considered “after the fact”, or not at all is exhausting. Envisioning myself as a Black woman in an executive role, while consistently working under white managers, is difficult. I’ve already had to fight too hard for respect and recognition.

In advertising, our ability to understand and accurately represent the different life experiences of our consumers is fundamental to our legacy and our legitimacy. What kind of messages are we sending to the public when we do this work from whitewashed offices? How much longer will the industry leave people behind and out of crucial conversations? There is no more time to waste.

2. Creativity is our industry’s most radical tool, but radical creativity is misappropriated as lip-service or for self-congratulatory gain. The people deserve more from us.

The moment I felt confident in my transition from the world of politics to advertising is when I recognized the undeniable power in making analogies between topics I prioritize as a political scientist and those I explore in my current role as a strategist. One thing that’s clear is that our industry must pay attention to the exigent pressure from the bottom up for brands to fill in the gaps where the government and other structural inequities continue to fail the people.

Shouldn’t a consumer’s spent dollar give them entitlement to this representation in the same way taxes do? If we are the ones who represent consumers, it is our job to uphold this social responsibility by making sure the brands we work with are prepared to step up past empty Instagram statements and black squares. This means following Ben & Jerry’s lead, but it could go so much further. In a perfect world, we’d build a bridge between the social and the corporate sector.

What’s stopping Google from saving our broken education system? Why haven’t we seen billboards calling for justice for the Black women dying from extreme maternal mortality rates? What has Dasani, Aquafina, and Evian been up to as 13 year old Little Miss Flint fights to solve the city’s water crisis?

If you work in advertising, accept that this job you chose puts you in a position where you are required to do this hard work. This is not a political position, but an ethical one. It will take more than listening to an hour long podcast about racism or inequality in America to call yourself an ally. You will have to step outside of your comfort zone and do this work with us. Talk to your Black colleagues, get to know us, understand the communities that make us who we are. And more importantly, don’t ask us for our input only when tragedy strikes.

Our industry’s superpower is creativity. It’s in the visual messages we send, the information we spread, the intelligence we can instigate, and the experiences we account for out in the world. Ask yourself this: are you satisfied with how the industry today uses its power to serve society? If you don’t think this question is relevant to your job, then check your privilege.

Until our industry starts using our unique social, political, and emotional influence to defend communities against the restraints of white privilege that our industry undoubtedly benefits from, we will fail to do our part in today’s dire situation. Are we as creative agencies prepared to commit to being morally conscious middlemen between the brands we represent and the people that give them their value? Our industry cannot be stagnant. That is the antithesis of creativity and there is far too much at stake.

3. Creative industries sensationalize the Black experience and profit off of blaxploitation. You love us when we tick off boxes that reflect positively on your businesses. You love us because our culture sells. Black people should be celebrated, not used.

The contributions of Black people are so significant. We are constantly moving the needle and shaping culture where it matters most, but power is often shifted away from the Culture and into the hands of white beneficiaries. Here I define The Culture (capital C) as the tastemakers and neglected contributors of popular culture that the world consumes to its benefit every single day.

Black Twitter, Black creatives, and especially Black women — I want to recognize you. You are pioneers and the blueprint society couldn’t survive without. The Culture’s biggest threat — let’s call them super gluttons — are groups of almost exclusively wealthy, white, male executives that capitalize off of the consumption of popular culture at the expense of the appropriation of the Culture. The Kylie Jenners, the NFL execs, TikTok, and especially Hollywood, the Black community is looking at you sweetie.

Black people are too often your stereotypical supporting actors or TV sidekicks. You overrepresent us when you want to sell sports or because white kids love Hip Hop too. We create worldwide trends, yet we are severely underpaid and overshadowed. Fortnite, you ain’t slick with those copyrights, give those Black kids their coin. Charli D’Amelio, you owe your entire career to Jalaiah Harmon.

Even in creative spaces that are perceived as “democratized” spaces, we the Culture are still dictated by the same people in institutions that have for centuries stifled our voices and co-opted our contributions. In all creative industries, we must commit to redistributing ownership back into the hands of Black creators, Black artists, Black influencers, Black photographers, and Black storytellers. Understand that this is power that the Black community rightfully deserves.

To all advertising and creative agencies: where are your Black art directors, Black animators, Black cinematographers, and Black art colorists that understand how to shoot black skin? Where are your Black directors and Black-led production companies that are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to make your ads?

To our white allies, you are more than welcome to work alongside us on campaigns that accurately represent and compensate our Black communities. You should never get caught up in righteousness, or move to speak for us or at us. As advertisers, are we willing to challenge the industry’s flagrant inequity and lack of credit for the creativity that comes out of Black communities? What glory is there in our current pace towards fixing it? There is so much more value in the Black experience when we lead our own legacies.

4. Admit it, our industry and the many brands we represent have over relied on performative stunts to save face. The Culture demands reciprocity and the only proof is action. Don’t be Jacob Frey-ed.

The central critique from Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” contains a mockery of the advertising industry and the media at-large. Our work is like an illusion behind TV boxes and now phone screens, disconnected from the struggle that continues in real life. The revolution could be televised — if we as creative industries join the fight ourselves.

Unfortunately, we are overly dedicated to the market economy and capitalism. Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation warned us decades ago that once the market economy begins to take hold, there’s no stopping the train until it completely dictates society. When systems place the growth of the economy over the liberation of its people, trust is completely broken. Communities depend on trust to function and for its survival.

Today, we are seeing a steady resurgence of the characteristics of a moral economy, with notable shifts towards conscious capitalism and other community-based alternatives to large and immoral corporations. Think about the role of Black Twitter: this digital silo acts as an entire ecosystem designed for the survival and protection of a neglected group. It’s where we collect information, form community-based marketplaces, trust in principles of mutuality, and seek out truth and justice.

Never forget that the Black Lives Matter movement is inextricably tied to Black Twitter. As protests erupt across the world in solidarity with the too many George Floyds, Breonna Taylors and Ahmaud Arberys, the Culture isn’t watching Fox News or CNN — our attention is on Black Twitter. As brands are torn apart for their overwhelmingly white teams (#PullUpOrShutUp), threads of Black businesses to support, instead, are circulating far and wide.

All corrupt systems will eventually face the wrath of the communities they fail — your ignorance will cost you. Can we honestly commit this time to building a collective future that is better than our past and present? If so, are we ready to support the Culture by any means necessary at the standards set by the Black community? If not, the unequivocal truth is that the world will suffer without Black people. So don’t test us and pull up.

There is nowhere for Black people to turn and not face racism. Not even in our own homes when we turn on the TV or scroll through our phones. That is something the advertising industry and other creative industries must hold themselves accountable for. The revolution is at our doorstep. Now that it has finally caught our attention, it’s about damn time to do the hard work. How will we change? The world is watching.

Xoxo,

Kifaya Mohamed Taha, but you can call me Chief.

Kifaya Taha