Study Finds Racial Bias in Advertising Industry

Researchers say disparity is widespread problem

opponent of the industry, contends that mainstream ad agencies have been operating under the radar for years. “If you look at a General Electric, American Express, or General Motors, they are constantly being scrutinized by their actions and how they do in terms of hiring and minority procurement. They don’t scrutinize the people who work for them,” Graves says.

Bendick and Egan assert that the fundamental problem of mainstream advertising agencies is a persistent unwillingness to hire, assign, advance, and retain available black talent. Additionally, about 16% of large establishments in the industry employ no black managers or professionals, a rate 60% higher than in the overall labor market, according to the study.

“Most of these clients have chief diversity officers and diversity programs, yet they continuously do business with these agencies that have no black people or have black people in junior positions,” says Eugene Morris, CEO of E. Morris Communications Inc., No. 15 on the BE 100s 2008 list of black-owned advertising agencies.“The only way the industry is going to change is if the clients themselves take the lead and force the agencies to change.” Morris, who did not see the report, but offered to speak about the industry in general, and Moore both believe that the clients not only fail to scrutinize general market ad agencies but they neglect minority-owned ad agencies as well.

Shedding light on the black-out

The study suggests that solving the problem will require mainstream agencies to avoid stereotyping, reform human resources practices, and eliminate obsolete market segmentation assumptions that racial minorities lack skills applicable to non-ethnic markets. Public oversight and pressure from advertising agencies’ client firms could also be a promising source to influence advertising agencies to decrease the employment, promotion, and pay gap.

Nancy Hill, CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies trade association, believes that the industry has done a lot to try and move this along. “But certainly they are not doing it consistently or fast enough and I think it is unfortunate that it has come to this. We certainly have not done a good job of creating an environment where they would want to stay,” says Hill, who is also the chief diversity officer at AAAA. “It has to come from the top down. Commitment to diversity has to visibly come from the CEO. It has to be a big commitment; not just lip service,” says Hill who also believes that sometimes promotions at ad agencies have nothing to do with skin color, but is simply a case of being the “right person at the right time.”

Graves counters that idea and suggests that when you don’t have a diverse group making decisions on promotions, then everything seems OK. “You can’t have 12 white guys sitting in a room making the decisions on what are the best ways to reach a worldwide market,” Graves says.

To help blacks surmount the barriers they face getting hired as management in the ad industry and make the transition from other industries, the AAAA recently made

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  • Wow, very interesting!


  • Doesn’t it seem like we “discover” America every five years or so? As if the problem has not been staring us in our faces all along. In fact, this kind of virulent racism and discrimination is in every area of image making: advertising, fashion, magazines, film, stage, television, and even social media (though I think we can save the latter if we move aggressively to claim new media territory). Do you think things will be different in the “Age of Obama?”

  • Here’s a better question. Is it safe to say that if whites monopolize the decision making process in the advertising industry, they also have the ability determine the success of the media outlets that receive those vital dollars being spent by their clients.

    The range of products being pitched at African-Americans via the radio, TV networks and websites that cater to them seems to be quite limited. But, the truth is most of the products we consume are the same as those white people consume.

    I’m tired of seeing McDonalds, Ford, Cadillac and KFC a million times a day.

    As an owner of a website, I know first hand that the advertising dollars being spent on “urban” outlets and the number of companies spending those dollars is very limited. That needs to be addressed as well.

  • Ms Carrie

    Hmmm… Good article! Obviously we all knew about the bias before the study was conducted. Kudos to the NAACP for an effort that appears to be only a pin prick compared to the size of the problem. But a pin prick is all that is needed to deflate a balloon. The advertising medium has ballooned out of control in this country in terms of formulating and perpetuating stereotypes. It’s no great surprise that people of color are marginalized in employment in this industry. Look at how we are represented in the media. (Or not represented in so many cases). Racism in advertising will not easily be eradicated because the negative ideas about blacks are so deeply entrenched in this almost lily white bastion of white supremacy. (Okay I’m bitter but with good reason!)
    Ms Hill said it plainly in the article in advertising double-speak: “…nothing to do with skin color, but is simply a case of being the “right person at the right time.” What? Are we sure that “AAAA” doesn’t stand for Advertising Against African-Americans? Ms. Hill is also chief diversity officer at AAAA. Maybe they need to do some more hiring.

  • Ms. Grant

    These are very solvable problems, give me the list of companies who are excluding “us”, I will exclude them! We have allot of power with our dollars. I also agree with a statement made above, there are allot of advertisements made toward inner-city type folks, most African Americans live in Rural areas and I never see us represented. I don’t want to beg people to change, I think we should build our own enterprise that is more attractive and pull people in who want to be apart of it ,there by making our enterprise the “mainstream”. That is where the power is. Not begging people to treat us right, waiting for it to happen, and keeping them in power in the process!

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