Is Racism the Latest Marketing Tool?

Blackface sweatshirts, lighter complexion-skewed shade ranges, racially charged ads — scroll through your timeline on any social media site and you’re bound to see a brand putting out one of these. Fortunately, the reactions to these controversies are largely negative, with even high-profile influencers openly criticizing the guilty brands. With that, you sigh in relief.  

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But then you stop to think: why does this keep happening? When most of the people who see these blunders are clearly getting angry, these brands have to know they’re doing something wrong. In a post-Fenty Beauty climate where inclusive, diverse shade ranges are almost ubiquitous, these brands have to know what to do and what not to do when releasing complexion products. In an era where the average millennial is aware of the history of minstrelsy and colonialism, these brands have to know what not to put on their clothing designs. Surely these brands know to, you know, not be racist? How could some of these products and releases make it through rounds and rounds of screening and approvals that go on at their headquarters? It just doesn’t make sense.

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My theory? They know. They know that you can’t release a foundation and only cater to light-skinned people. They know that releasing clothing with minstrelsy imagery calls back centuries of violent racism. There is absolutely no way that an entire company of people whose livelihoods revolve around being in touch with the cultural climate and trends of their own industry wouldn’t know these things. But then that just opens the door to another question: why do they keep doing it? 

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As the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity." While the quote’s been around for decades, it’s never been truer than it is now. With sites like Twitter and Instagram becoming powerful marketing tools, social media engagement has become incredibly important for businesses. Unfortunately, social media engagement only looks at numbers and web traffic and doesn’t discriminate between positive and negative reception. In other words, Instagram’s explore page algorithm doesn’t read the content of the comments on a post and assess whether they’re positive or not; it simply sees a high number of comments being put on a post, registers that post as being popular, and places it on everyone’s explore pages. With that, the post gets even more exposure and the brand that uploaded it gets more attention. 

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Take the Givenchy shade range debacle for example. Let’s say someone saw all the outrage, was confused as to why people were outraged, and decided to go on Givenchy’s website to see the shade range for themselves. Let’s say they, too, were outraged, but they then saw a lip gloss in the sidebar that intrigued them. Like any participant in a consumerist capitalist society, they probably ended up buying it. Boom, money for Givenchy. 

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Or let’s keep it more realistic and talk about a beloved beauty brand, beautyblender. Most people were upset by the initial shade range of their Bounce™ foundation, but most of the people who were upset likely still continued to use their beautyblenders. After all, it’s arguably the best makeup sponge on the market, so tossing it out is a big deal. Even more, there were probably plenty of people who avoided the pink sponge bandwagon, but after seeing their timeline become oversaturated with posts and discussions about the brand, there’s a high chance they might have become more inclined to buy it. Boom, money for beautyblender. Then, after raking it all that attention and money, they expand their shade range to appease the angry people, and all is now well for the company. 

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Now, if this is all true and companies are using the outrage of people of color as a marketing tactic, what should we do about it? 

On one hand, holding brands and people accountable for endorsing racism is incredibly important. A large reason as to why today’s youth is more in touch with social issues and aware of identity politics is social media; seeing people outraged over certain things and explaining why they’re outraged serves to educate people who aren’t directly targeted by certain forms of bigotry. For that reason, making sure everyone who sees what these brands are doing knows that these acts are wrong is important, as is making sure the brand themselves know people are outraged. On the other hand, bringing a lot of attention to these brands via outrage and backlash is only helping them make more money and carry out their plans. 


It’s hard to say what the best mode of action is, and quite frankly, I have no clue what we should do. All I know is that we have to hope that brands will one day stop using the pain and anger of marginalized groups to make money. 


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