Cultural Appropriation, Stereotyping, and Racism in Digital Advertising

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This post is authored by Le’Shae Robinson, an event planner, digital advertising specialist, and Director of Operations for nonprofit, NoLi CDC.

Imagine my face when I opened up an ad for a trampoline park that read “It’s lit” with three White kids on it. As the only Black person on my team, I was stunned—“It’s lit” is a term made popular by Houston rapper Travis Scott.

It was 2016, and I had just landed a job working for a digital advertising agency. My responsibilities included reviewing ads from clients across the country to make sure their ad images were the right size, URLs pointed to the correct website per the ad, double-checking the demographics the ads were supposed to be targeting, and making sure budgets aligned with clients’ expectations.

Basically, I was quality control for the team before they entered the ad into the platform and it was pushed to customers. It was here where I learned how racism plays a part in digital advertising.

Cultural appropriation in 2020

Cultural appropriation was the result that came from running ads that said things like “It’s lit” while not showing any African American people. It’s an old American story to profit from parts of Black culture without reference. It’s especially hurtful when it comes to music: We can’t forget how Elvis Presley went on to become the King of Rock and Roll, but heavily studied Black musicians and mimicked their singing and dancing styles. The artists who influenced him saw nowhere near the amount of success Elvis did—that is the true problem with cultural appropriation.

The digital ads this agency ran also contributed to inequality. One story in particular that stands out to me was an ad for a private school. The ad encouraged viewers to apply, showcasing the advantages of what their school offered. The demographics specifically targeted Caucasian people. I found it interesting that the client specifically wanted to target that demographic. Instantly I thought, “Wow.” What if there were other races who might be interested in what the school had to offer?

I voiced my concern to the team, and they, too, thought it was odd. However, the sales rep for the account insisted this was what their client wanted. We could have changed the demographic before we entered the order, but we feared what would happen if the client got applications from people outside of the targeted demographic. Would they dump us as an agency? Our backs were up against the wall.

I had to wonder how many qualified candidates of color missed the opportunity to attend the private school because the ad was targeted only to White people? I grew up going to public school and had an overall good experience. There were times, though, when I experienced situations I’m almost certain didn’t happen at a private school. (For example, 13 fights in one day taking away from learning time.) Imagine my parents being exposed to advertising for a private school. Would I be more accomplished? Would I have a better professional network? Would I have a better job? I’ll never know.

Stereotyping as a means of marketing

Stereotyping target audiences is another way racism rears its ugly head in the digital advertising industry.

An order came through one day for mouth grills. The image for this ad was a mouth grill that featured gold teeth in front of a black background. The ad ran as a mobile ad, which meant it would be displayed only on cellphones and other mobile devices. What made this racist? It specifically targeted Black barbershops and people who had a household income of $40,000 or less per year.

When advertisers showcase items like mouth grills to people who frequent Black establishments or don’t make a lot of money, it reaffirms certain stereotypes. The client likely missed out on sales because of this bias. There are plenty of people who own a mouth grill and make significantly more than $40,000 a year. In today’s climate, wearing a mouth grill is similar to wearing other accessories like earrings, necklaces, or watches.

If someone were to attend a Travis Scott or Migos concert, there is a high chance they would see concert-goers wearing a grill. These are the same people who have office jobs and can afford high-dollar concerts. They just don’t wear this accessory to work.

Consequences of following orders

Processing these orders, I often reflected on the true consequences of cultural appropriation, inequality, and stereotyping by running these ads.

Right now there is a call for racial equality. But it was my position as a quality control specialist that taught me racial equality is more than just asking for cops not to kneel on people’s necks. As our technology continues to evolve, racial equality could look like advertising educational opportunities to all people; giving Black people an opportunity to model in ads that use cultural references; finding a way to give credit to the origin of a particular phrase. There are many possibilities.

The call I make for advertising professionals is this: when working on projects, ask yourself, “How will this influence other cultures? Is there an opportunity to honor other cultures through this work? Is there anything about this project that would negatively impact another culture?”

Challenge yourself today not to just do your job—ask the tough questions and find innovative ways to make clients make more money while also fighting racial inequality.

It is possible.


Le’Shae Robinson is a jack of all trades. She has worked as an event planner, digital advertising specialist, and now as the Director of Operations for the NoLi CDC (a nonprofit that works to better housing and economic development in Lexington, KY). She also enjoys writing and providing social media management to local small businesses. Recently she won an award for a social media campaign that she led where her client earned the most meals per capita in an effort to fight hunger awareness. You can read her most recently published work here. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family, learning new recipes, and listening to Beyonce.


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