Facing down racism: experiences from adland
In the first of a series of interviews, shots Features Editor, Linda H. Codega, has teamed up with Elisha Smith-Leverock, a Black director working in the German and UK markets, to help identify and confront racism in advertising.
As the industry, and the world at large, confronts systemic racism, we hear from Black people and People of Color in advertising who experience racism on a daily basis.
These interviews are an authentic expression of personal pain and experience. While most of these accounts are attributed, some chose to remain anonymous. Even as the levees break, Black people and PoC are not confident that they won’t face repercussions just for speaking out about their experiences. These accounts were given in the hope of shattering those barriers. Speaking out against racism should never be a fireable offense, but for many, it still is.
Each statement reinforces the unacceptable experiences and systemic barriers faced by Black people and People of Color every day in an industry that sees itself as open and diverse. Advertising not only needs to listen and learn, but must also be willing to give up current systems of power in order for real, difficult, needed change to happen.
The accounts appear as follows: Elisha Smith-Leverock, a director based in Germany with frequent work in the UK [ESL]; an anonymous Agency Strategist, who works internationally [AS]; Jaiden James, a Creative Strategist, who works in Germany and the UK [JJ]; Rachel Hoffman an Agency Producer based in Germany [RH]; Monika Martinez, a Creative Producer specializing in fashion based in Germany and the USA [MM]; Anissa Carrington, a freelance designer and Art Director based in Germany [AC]; an anonymous Creative Strategist working internationally [CS]; Katharina Hingst, a director working in Germany [KH]; Lorena Maza, an international stylist and consultant [LM]; Affa Osman, a creative consultant and Casting Director in Germany and the UK [AO]; and an anonymous Social Media Manager [SM].
What are some of the most egregious examples of racism you’ve experienced while creating ads?
ESL: The most frequent and open racism I encounter happens in discussions around casting. These conversations have left me enraged and sick to my stomach on several occasions. It's really easy for people to try and gaslight you in these situations, especially if you are the only non-white person in the room. Casting discussions tend to be subjective. This is when deep-seated racial biases come out. People feel they have a license to say the most hideous things out loud, as if it's just a matter of personal preference. Then, when you call them out, they frame you as difficult or oversensitive.
A difficult casting process is often also a precursor to problematic client requests later. I remember being asked to only shoot the Black male actor when he’s smiling because ‘he looks too scary otherwise’. I was also explicitly told that the only dark-skinned woman cast in a group of people could only ever be shown in a wide shot, and at the edge of the frame; never as a central figure and never in a close-up.
From Creative Directors blatantly using the N-word when looking for a 'slave' to work on a project with them, to enduring jokes concerning my natural hair – the racism I encounter while working in ad agencies has a wide range. -AC
Personally, one specific event has compounded my view of this industry. I was called the N-word at a German advertising industry event. I was invited to be there as part of a jury. The man that used this slur was one of the other jury members - a partner in one of Germany’s leading advertising agencies.
He said this in the context of a discussion he was having with another person. He dehumanized me, using me as a prop to illustrate his point by calling me the N-word several times. When I filed a formal complaint with the event organizers they reached out to him and he denied this ever happened. Then, adding insult to injury, he assassinated my character. He was subsequently protected by the event organizers, who chose to believe him over me, despite the fact I had a witness provide a signed statement.
While he enjoys a reputation as a free-thinking provocateur, I was labeled as a difficult Black woman.
People don’t just say something like this in a room full of people without feeling absolutely entitled to do so, knowing that they would be protected. In approaching him and confronting his behavior I risked my career and my reputation. To this day, it has impacted me and it probably will continue to impact me as long as I work in this industry. People need to reshape these narratives and stop victim-blaming.
I was always the one who was 'oversensitive'. -SM
AS: A pair of young, white, male creatives - a copywriter and art director duo (the classic creative set-up in agencies) presented a concept for a coffee brand, in which Black women were sexually correlated to different coffee drinks, from an espresso to a latte, according to their skin tones. The problematic layers surrounding both the colonial history that especially the coffee industry has, the blatant colorism that was instrumentalized here, and the prevalent sexist notion that Black women are something that can be consumed by reproducing the racist tradition of equating us to coffee, chocolate, caramel, dark liquor, etc. were deeply disturbing. After presenting this extremely offensive idea, the duo continually flirtatiously glanced over at me, expecting to have impressed me – especially me.
A client once repeatedly demanded that their ads could not include Black hands or Black people holding their product. They said things like [their skin tone] 'does not compliment the colors of our brand well,' 'we want to focus on showing a family,' (which means that a normal family must be white,) and then, finally, 'can we change this person for a white woman?'
Creative industries love to (mis-) reference Black culture without actually involving the voices of BIPOC. For example, the way that white men in creative spaces use Black and queer vernacular, especially around Black models and crew is appalling. -MM
Overall, my experience is that Black and PoC representation is naturally neglected in the making of ads. It is as if agencies can only imagine a white consumer. I would say 90% of storyboards for ads are conceptualized exclusively with white protagonists.
JJ: While working for a company that claimed to be a luxury service, I was openly told several times, and sometimes in more subtle ways, that my diverse casting choices didn’t reflect the customer base, implying that Black people couldn’t afford the product.
RH: I’ve been in many meetings where people of color are deleted from casting suggestions without comment. When asked why, the answer hangs unpleasantly in the room. I have heard, 'he won’t work, he's maximally pigmented,' followed by forced laughter.
Situations such as these are difficult to endure, but the real problem starts much earlier. In most cases, casting a person of color or hiring a PoC director on the project isn’t a consideration in the first place. If there is ever a conscious discussion to cast a person of color, it’s mostly in connection with urban lifestyle brands or with clients who need to work on diversifying for image purposes. I often see people of color tokenized for clout.
I remember being asked to only shoot the Black male actor when he’s smiling because ‘he looks too scary otherwise’. -ESL
MM: I live and work in Berlin where there are very few BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, Person of Color] in the room, on the crew, or on set, despite the vast amount of talented people of color living and working in the city. As a Black woman working in this industry, I am often not credited for my work, or even brought in to share my creative ideas. I am asked to do the work, but not voice my opinion.
One day, a white director actually said he was afraid to leave his own (mostly PoC) crew alone in the rooms because he was afraid that they might take something!
Creative industries love to (mis-) reference Black culture without actually involving the voices of BIPOC. For example, the way that white men in creative spaces use Black and queer vernacular, especially around Black models and crew is appalling. Dropping N-words, slays, and yaaas kweens, referencing hip-hop without knowing anything about it. It’s careless.
I once heard 'we can’t show this mood board [with Black people] to our client. The audience will think they’re employing refugees or thieves'.-CS
AC: From Creative Directors blatantly using the N-word when looking for a 'slave' to work on a project with them, to enduring jokes concerning my natural hair – the racism I encounter while working in ad agencies has a wide range.
There were lots of situations where I chose to point out the problems I had with people’s statements or actions, but some times I chose to remain silent. Not because the aggressions weren’t worth the battle, but because I did not have the energy to fight against it. It is tiring to be the only person speaking out against problematic behaviors.
It’s much easier to allow other people to be racist, to disregard the problem, and to be complicit in the perpetuation of racism, than it is to admit that racism exists. The expectation to overlook issues is universal in the industry. -AO
If your colleagues are well-meaning and start to run everything they do by you to make sure their work isn’t problematic, you are faced with another challenge: You become somewhat of an inspection authority on all *isms for white (male) creatives. It is almost like taking on a second job, but without getting paid for the labor of educating people, which is emotionally draining.
CS: There are some very problematic conventions of speech in the German advertising business. Two examples that I have witnessed myself (which are used very frequently and unashamedly when I am not in the room, according to some of my colleagues):
'Neger vor Hütte' (Negro in front of a hut): When something is redundant or very obvious; and 'Abnegern' (to negro down): using a sun block during a photoshoot to dim the sunlight.
I once heard 'we can’t show this mood board [with Black people] to our client. The audience will think they’re employing refugees or thieves'.
KH: The overwhelming feeling triggered by hurtful, racist opinions is like facing an ocean so wide that all you see is water when the challenge you’re given is to swim beyond the horizon to find paradise. I know it’s possible, I’m not afraid of the water and I’m a good swimmer, but it’s hard to navigate when you’re ill-equipped and can’t see below the surface. Still, you’re hopeful and you want to give it your best try. But every time you make a little progress you get caught in a current so powerful that your only chance is to surrender, let it drag you out until it loses grip so you can return to where you came from.
My supervisor told me that the main reason he hired me was to 'mix things up'. He meant it as a compliment, but it just reminded me that white people often tokenize Black people and think of us as entertainment. -SM
You’re left feeling exhausted and disillusioned, doubting you'll ever reach that new horizon. So all you’re left with is a new experience to learn from, a way to rethink your strategy, gather your strength, and try again tomorrow. And while people are tired of feeling tired, they have reached a point where they found strength in unity. The movement we are witnessing right now is what happens when people combine forces to build a goddamn ship!
LM: There is definitely more than one incident that comes to mind, however, I understand that I actively suppress those memories so they don't affect me too much at work, or in my personal life.
One that does stand out happened when I was an assistant. I came to a shoot carrying so many things that all you could see were my curls peeking out behind the pile of clothing on my arms. The people working on set, without hesitating, told me to go straight to the kitchen because they thought I was part of the catering team. Not that catering work is anything to look down on, but it was very telling that the German crew immediately assumed that I wasn’t working on set based on the color of my skin.
Casting discussions tend to be subjective...People feel they have a license to say the most hideous things out loud, as if it's just a matter of personal preference.-ESL
One of my worst experiences happened during a fitting with a white male model, again while I was still assisting. As soon as I was alone with him he started making sexual comments. Things like 'with your wild curls you’re probably wild in bed,' and 'can you twerk it?', objectifying me not only as a woman, but as a woman of color. I felt extremely uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say, so my first instinct was just to pretend I barely spoke English and didn’t understand what he said. I utilized the stereotype of the language-challenged Latina in order to protect myself.
Recently I was working for an international luxury brand, and while discussing the cast, the client was extremely vocal about not wanting dark-skinned models. Sadly, this is more common than I would like to admit and still, it shocks me every time. They even went so far to tell us that they preferred light-skinned models because 'the makeup shows better on their skin'.
I can’t even put in words how disgusted I was, but because it was such a prestigious client and it’s so important to have that kind of work in your portfolio if you want to operate internationally, I just swallowed it up. To be honest, I still carry that weight around with me and feel bad for not standing up.
AO: Racism is a daily experience. I think why it is so difficult to understand for a lot of people in this industry is because they connect racism immediately to these large nationalist and obliquely bigoted groups - the Ku Klux Klan, Britain First, Germany’s National Democratic Party, etc. People are still so in denial that they don’t see underlying racism that exists in all parts of this industry.
The other day, I received a job request from a German retailer with a casting deck that included only white people. If you searched hard enough you found one small picture of a Black barber. Talk about stereotypes! There I was with 25 pages of white people. How does a creative team in liberal Berlin create a lengthy deck like this without noticing how insulting and problematic it is?
My experience is that Black and PoC representation is naturally neglected in the making of ads. It is as if agencies can only imagine a white consumer. -AS
I told the producer that I couldn’t work with all-white decks. I can’t send concepts out to people which I fundamentally disagree with. I kindly asked the producer if the company could create a deck with people who represent the Berlin/Germany/Europe we live in, and their reply was that I should remove pictures and only send the extant copy to the client. It would have been a small thing for the producer to speak to the creative agency, and, just maybe, the agency would not have made that mistake again.
His suggestion to edit the photos compounded the problem. Why do I have to cover up this sort of ignorant and racist behavior? Why was he disagreeing with me or trying to get me to ignore the problem? Why can’t he admit that they made a mistake and give them an opportunity to fix it?
It’s much easier to allow other people to be racist, to disregard the problem, and to be complicit in the perpetuation of racism, than it is to admit that racism exists. The expectation to overlook issues is universal in the industry.
One day, a white director actually said he was afraid to leave his own (mostly PoC) crew alone in the rooms because he was afraid that they might take something! -MM
SM: When I started my apprenticeship in a networked agency, I was having lunch with some of the other girls (all of whom were white) who were in training alongside me. One of them was telling a story and used the N-word. I called her out and her response was that she had a Black friend that said that she could say it and that I should chill. Seconds later, she said the N-word again! I got mad and the other white girls jumped to protect her! Her! They all said that I should calm down, that no-one here is racist, and I was being too sensitive.
Working at this company took a toll. This happened often, and I was always the one who was 'oversensitive'.
When I finally finished my apprenticeship and had the opportunity to switch agencies, I was ready for things to be different. Then, within a few months, my supervisor told me that the main reason he hired me was to 'mix things up'. He meant it as a compliment, but it just reminded me that white people often tokenize Black people and think of us as entertainment.