History of the Regulation of Ethnic Diversity in Advertising Agency Employment

Dana Saewitz and Edward Lama Wonkeryor

Why is it necessary today for government agencies to regulate ethnic diversity in advertising? Why are African Americans and other ethnic minorities still significantly underrepresented in executive roles in the advertising industry? Of course, the insidious and pervasive history of explicit racism in advertising dating to the days of slavery is well documented. However, in more recent times, multicultural marketing has moved to the forefront of advertising efforts, so it may seem surprising that minorities are still struggling to be hired and retained in the industry. The following conceptual analysis takes a historical look at racism in advertising, and attempts to examine the deep roots of this contemporary issue of discrimination. We argue that the painful history of racism in advertising from the days of slavery through the late twentieth century has left an enduring legacy that is still difficult to overcome. Contemporary multicultural marketing efforts are a positive step, but the injustices that took place over centuries of institutional racism in advertising are clearly not yet merely a historical footnote. This chapter further examines the unique role and responsibility of the advertising industry as both a mirror of society and an extraordinary influence on popular culture and social norms.

We offer a historical analysis based on existing literature and critically examine actual ads throughout history as a manifestation of racial discrimination in daily life and agency employment practices. The chapter is woven together to tell both stories at once: the well-documented history of discrimination in portrayal of African Americans in mediated images, as well as the less-known story of employment discrimination and failed attempts to counteract that discrimination.

Ultimately, our conclusions support the theory that encouraging and fostering significant ethnic diversity among advertising personnel is not just an important regulatory issue to address historical failures, but is essential to portray accurate images of diverse ethnicities, to encourage a culture of tolerance and respect for diversity, and finally, to enable positive multicultural marketing efforts to succeed.

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