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  • Motherhood in Black and Brown:Advertising to U.S. Minority Women
  • Elizabeth C. Hirshman (bio)


The two largest person-of-color ethnic groups in the United States are blacks and Hispanics.1 Reading through the past 40 years worth of research on advertising to African-American and Hispanic consumers is a discouraging exercise.2 What one learns is that although the proportion of blacks (12 percent) and Hispanics (16 percent) represented in national advertising is largely consistent with the proportion of these groups in the U.S. population as a whole, the specific products being advertised and the representational depiction of both African-American and Hispanic consumers is troubling.3 For example, studies conducted during the past decade show that Black and Hispanic consumers are more often targeted through media placement for alcohol and tobacco products, and are more frequently depicted in mainstream advertising as heavy users of alcohol and tobacco products.4 This may stimulate increased usage of such products among these groups, and may also feed racist perceptions that black and Hispanics are heavy users of these products. Neither outcome, of course, is an attractive one.

Both blacks and Hispanics are also often depicted as overly sexualized in media representations, perhaps the most problematic of these being music video programs which commonly show blacks and Latinos drinking, smoking, and having sex.5 While this may create feelings of envy among some elements of the non-minority population, it also puts forward objectionable role models for those viewing the programs, who most often are black and Hispanic teenagers.6

Advertising Stereotypes of Black and Brown Women

From these population level advertising stereotypes, we now focus more tightly on gender depictions within each group, specifically on the depictions of black and Hispanic women. How are African-American and Hispanic women, the two primary women-of-color communities in the United States, portrayed in advertising? An article by Kern-Foxworth published online by the Center for Media Literacy,7 notes that the Quaker Oats iconic black female image of Aunt Jemima, first used in 1889, remains the most recognized "face" of black womanhood in the United States.

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Figure 1.

Original Aunt Jemima.

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Figure 2.

"Updated" Aunt Jemima.

The original Aunt Jemima image is a heavy-set woman who wears a yellow bandana covering her hair. She has African facial features and dark skin. Her intertextual history dates back to the pre-Civil War era of "black mammies" who raised the children of affluent white families in the South, a responsibility that often left the "mammy" little time to care for her own children.8 Even Aunt Jemima's name suggests this role—the term "aunt" is a southern U.S. "honorific" title for blacks who worked in the house as servants; ("Uncle Rastus" was the male iconic equivalent for Cream of Wheat cereal). Further, the given name "Jemima" was a common female slave name.9

The "new and improved" image for Aunt Jemima, introduced by Quaker in 1989, depicts her as slimmer, with uncovered hair, pearl earrings, lighter skin, and a white collar. She now has been made to resemble a contemporary African-American house maid in an affluent white home. This does not suggest a growth in racial sensitivity on the part of the Quaker Oats Corporation.

Kern-Foxworth10 notes that advertisers have "shied away from using black models, particularly in advertisements for cosmetics and health and beauty aids. This, despite the fact that African-American women spend up to five times more on personal care products than the average [white] customer…. By 1993, black women are expected to buy more than 50 percent of the health and beauty aids used in the U.S." At the time of her writing and into the present day, African-American women compose about 12 percent of the U.S. female population, thus they are greatly disproportionate purchasers of cosmetics and health and beauty products.11

Kern-Foxworth12 further notes that "growing recognition and lessening of [black female] stereotypes are welcome… [however] we must remember that we are wanted not for ourselves, but for our growing...