Opinion | Civil Rights

Are some commercial depictions of interracial families sending a wrong message?

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

It is difficult to avoid the proliferation of TV commercials that feature white men at the head of Black families. The commercials, of course, are intended to sell products that range from cars to insurance to snack foods. Still, the depiction of scenes of intimacy that center white men in Black life can trigger painful memories of historical experience.

Such commercials can become instruments for destructive role modeling in the Black mind. They can codify a new symbol of white male dominance under the pretense of diversity - especially when the reality of interracial marriage is that Black men and white women far outnumber the scenes promoted in the commercials.

For example, the 2017 Pew Center report "Trends and Patterns in Intermarriage" found that "Black men are twice as likely as black women to have a spouse of a different race or ethnicity (24 percent v. 12 percent). This gender gap has been a longstanding one - in 1980, 8 percent of recently married black men and 3 percent of their female counterparts were married to someone of a different race or ethnicity."

As such, the commercials seem intent on marketing an image with a degree of political manipulation. Black Democrats, unfortunately, appear unprepared to question the role of commercials to influence the impressions of Black youth. Few Washington leaders are pressing for commercials that sell products and reinforce images of Black pride, love and self-determination.

One may question whether Democrats - and Black legislators, in particular - have a role to play in this issue. Clearly, advertising is protected under the First Amendment as "commercial speech." Still, the Federal Trade Commission has the power to examine advertisements perceived as untruthful, deceptive or unfair. Usually, critics of problematic ads resort to the courts to file complaints; historically, the courts have upheld commercial speech rights with limited exceptions such as pornography. This issue does not rise to that level.

That said, Democrats may have a vested interest in the cultural effects of advertising and racial portrayals. Those who sit on relevant congressional committees can raise questions and gather facts on the intentions of the advertising campaigns. By showing an interest, they may succeed in prodding advertisers to re-envision the broader messaging in the campaigns.

The silence is especially notable when one considers that the commercials air during time slots of high visibility to Black youth. Pringles, for example, features a young white man sitting at a kitchen table with a Black father commenting on how good his daughter kisses; Hyundai shows a Black woman and two children in a car driven by a white father on a mission to buy beef jerky; Nissan has a Black woman behind the wheel with two children and a white father speeding through the frozen tundra and other extreme locations.

Clearblue, which produces a home pregnancy test, has a Black woman with a white man as she discovers a positive test result. Vicks NyQuil features a Black woman with a cold in bed with a white man who turns to her and says, "Honey," in reference to a cold medication.

In contrast, Progressive depicts a meek white woman in an apartment building laundry room interested in meeting a new Black tenant. As the man approaches to show mutual interest, the character of "Flo" intrudes to pitch renter's insurance and thereby prevents the two from speaking.

Such commercials can tap into unconscious myths in American racial and cultural history. Among the myths are the white male as a "Great Father" savior, the Black woman as sexually available, the Black male as absent or lacking authority within his own home, and the white woman as precious and needing protection from Black men.

One has to ponder about the mindset of advertising executives in creating the marketing campaigns. The issue would be less noteworthy if not for the glaring lack of commercials that portray loving relationships between Black men and women - much less of Blacks in intimate spaces with friends and spouses of other non-white groups. Do these depictions fail to sell products - and, if so, why?

The potential for corrosive impact of the depictions has been explored by social psychologists in recent years. Clearly, the commercials do more than sell products; they also market images of economic power, values of race and color preference, and understandings of social hierarchy.

Social psychologist Joy DeGruy probed the psychological implications in her book, "Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing." Her work explored the long-lasting injuries suffered from slavery, Jim Crow laws, and structural racism: "The legacy of trauma is reflected in many of our behaviors and our beliefs; behaviors and beliefs that at one time were necessary to adopt in order to survive, yet today serve to undermine our ability to be successful."  

In addition, Michael Halloran examined the implications in "African American Health and Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome: A Terror Management Theory Account." Published in the October 2018 issue of the Journal of Black Studies, his work studied how Blacks suffered when their culture no longer could provide "a buffer against basic anxiety and uncertainty."

A consequence has been vulnerability to anxiety-related illness, poor health outcomes, and destructive social experiences. Writer Brian Resnick underscored such findings in The Atlantic article of November 2013, "Poverty Is Stamped Into DNA in Childhood - And Stays There." He wrote that "a poorer upbringing increases people's susceptibility to colds later in life, something they can't shake even if they climb the socioeconomic ladder."

There is a growing body of research in this field. Social psychologists have recommended steps toward healing from the injuries of multi-generational oppression. Among these are programs that focus on rebuilding self-esteem, reducing levels of stress and poor health, promoting social justice and pursuing reparations for past exploitations.

One step forward would be the promotion of commercials that do more to affirm positive Black community experiences, accomplishments, loving relationships and male role models - just the opposite of how the current spate of interracial TV commercials may be socializing viewers. 

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston, and the author of "Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy." Since 2014, he has published VictoryStride.com, a curated website on African American history and culture.

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