Front and centre: the Oscars, race, and the meaning of diversity in global business

18 February 2016 | By Sign Salad
Vanity Fair 2016 Hollywood issue cover

In the wake of the 2016 Oscar nominees announcement has been much controversy around the absence of people of colour. It is the second consecutive year that every acting nominee has been white – a fact that has not escaped the notice of social media users, who have been quick to get #OscarsSoWhite trending on Twitter in expression of their outrage. This year several actors and filmmakers have voiced their frustrations at the lack of inclusion, with many announcing their intentions to boycott the event altogether.

In the midst of this controversy, Vanity Fair has published their Hollywood issue as per tradition. It contains a three page spread depicting the actors who are purported to be at the forefront of the industry. This year’s cover displays a diverse array of stars, including several women of colour. Despite this attempt at inclusion, the cover has come under some criticism, with Vanity Fair accused of cherry-picking actresses who have recently only had minor cinematic roles. The cover seems to belie reality, appearing to conceal industry prejudice by projecting an idealised and false representation of racial harmony.  The cosmetic arrangement of woman of colour in turn reads as placation rather than representation. This dissonance is palpable to the viewer and as a consequence Vanity Fair is in danger of appearing both disingenuous and inauthentic.

Vanity Fair 2016 Hollywood issue cover

This is an issue facing many brands who desire to be inclusive and egalitarian without falling into the trappings of misrepresentative political correctness (or contrived tokenism). The problem is that the very notion of diversity still characterises white as the default and everyone else as Other. This Otherness is routinely dramatised within the commercial realm of advertising in which the Other is marketed through Orientalist notions of the exotic, against which whiteness is read as normative.

Several brands have strived to portray diversity in their advertising, among them, Benetton’s 1980-1990s ‘United Colors of Benetton’ campaign and Calvin Klein’s 1990s advertisements for unisex fragrance CK One. These advertisements arranged models of various backgrounds together in a projection of multiculturalism. Their images of racial unity, however, have been criticised for false depictions of harmony and equality that decontextualise, commoditise and ultimately remove social issues from their appropriate historical context. In her book Beyond the Frame, about women of colour and visual representation, Laura Kuo uses the term ‘commoditized hybridity’ to refer to the dream of oneness being offered within a multicultural narrative that allows difference to be both disavowed and acknowledged. These images are potentially damaging because they are removed from a context in which they can enact social change and are instead reduced to a style or trend.
Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 18.54.06
But more recently, brands such as Gap and H&M have sought to break new frontiers in diverse advertising, featuring a Sikh model and Muslim model, respectively. Gap’s 2013 ‘Make Love’ campaign went viral after vandals defaced the advertisement on a subway with racist graffiti. Gap responded by attempting to source the location of the vandalism and by changing their Twitter background to an image of the original advert in an act of solidarity. Their actions were well-received by the Sikh community who caused #ThankYouGap to trend on Twitter in a show of appreciation.

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For brands perhaps the answer to positive representation therefore comes down to the issue of context and to what the reality is when the camera zooms out from the glossy advert. In Gap’s case, the context of their advert revealed the prejudice facing racial “minorities” in America today and rather than remaining silent Gap took the opportunity to participate in the wider discourse.

What can brands do to make the difference between a successfully diverse advertising campaign and one that falls short?

1)     Be sociable. Brands can utilise platforms such as Twitter to interact and engage with their diverse consumer base and to clarify the positioning of their adverts.

2)     Place front and centre. brands can show people of colour in the foreground of their adverts as central, stand-alone characters rather than as a contrast to whiteness.

3)     Listen and learn. Brands can listen to the consumers they are targeting in order to represent their individual stories; openly acknowledging difference rather than transferring one strategy between ethnic groups.

In following these steps, brands can ensure that the platforms they provide to people of colour enable the story that unfolds on the three-page spread to be continued when the camera pans away.

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