When people ask Eugene Morris why he left a virtually all-white advertising firm in the early 1970s for an African-American one, he tells them about the time he asked a white higher-up for an overdue raise.
"He started telling me about how well-dressed I was," Morris recalled. "He told me that I had a nice sports car, which I did, and he told me that he knew that I had a very nice apartment. He started naming all these things, these possessions of mine, and he said, 'Aren't you making enough money?' I thought the next thing he was going to say was, 'Well what more would a 'mmmm' want?'"
Incidents like these added up, Morris said, and after a while he decided he'd had enough, as did many other young black executives who left the advertising world after an initial surge of racially progressive hiring in the late '60s and early '70s.
Morris cited this incident recently to illustrate one of the reasons why the racial make-up of the mainstream advertising business still looks much as it did in the early '70s, which is to say, predominantly white.
"When I first came into the business, if I had projected forty years into the future," said Morris, "I never would have described the current situation, where African-Americans are still in the single digits in all these agencies."
For all too obvious reasons, the dearth of black executives in advertising doesn't normally receive much attention from the mainstream media, but a controversial Dove body wash ad cast the issue into the spotlight this week. Supposedly an attempt to present Dove as a company that values cultural diversity, many believe that the ad fell astoundingly short.
It shows a black woman, a white woman, and an olive-skinned woman, possibly Latina, standing side by side -- a tableau of racial harmony. What's offensive is what's behind them: a pair of skin close-ups with "before" and "after" titles positioned so that it looks like they're referring to the black and white woman, respectively.
As Copyranter, the blog that caused an stir on the Internet earlier this week by posting the ad, noted, it's as though the ad is pitching a product that "turns Black Women into Latino Women into White Women."
The blog Styleite reached a similar conclusion, writing, "Visually, it communicates that if you have dark skin before you use VisibleCare, you'll have pale skin afterward." Noting another salient difference between the black model and white one, Styleite added, "You'll also be thinner."
In a press statement, Unilever, the company that makes Dove products, said that all three women were "intended to demonstrate the 'after' product benefit" and added, "We do not condone any activity or imagery that intentionally insults any audience."
What's most significant about the ad -- and most embarrassing to Unilever -- is that no one at the company seems to have anticipated that people would find it offensive. And that speaks to a larger issue, one that the activist and former magazine editor Michaela Angela Davis framed like this: "When it comes to advertising, it's not enough to just have a black woman in the room. She has to be in the boardroom -- she can't just be in the changing room."
The lack of black women, and men, in Madison Avenue's boardrooms is a problem that the attorney Cyrus Mehri hopes to publicize. Two years ago, his firm, Mehri and Skalet, partnered with the NAACP to create the Madison Avenue Project, an initiative aimed at increasing the ranks of blacks and Latinos in advertising. A report released by the group in 2009 showed that black college graduates working in the business earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by whites with the same qualifications. Based on a survey of the various pools from which advertising firms traditionally draw talent, the study's authors also concluded that the industry had under-hired blacks by an order of 7,200 jobs.
Responding to the Dove ad, Mehri said, "I don't see how an African-American woman would not be offended by this ad, and I think it's indicative of an industry that still resembles the 'Mad Men' you see on TV. They have not evolved or progressed from the 1960s."
Last year, the Madison Avenue Project commissioned an analysis of the ads shown during the 2010 Super Bowl. Of the 76 creative directors responsible for selling beer, cars and other products to the game's 106 million viewers, 70 were white men and five were white women. The only non-white creative director, Joelle De Jesus, whose "House Rules" commercial for Doritos was one of the few ads to show a non-white character, was actually an amateur who'd scored the spot by winning a contest.
As it happens, Unilever was one of the advertisers in that line-up; a commercial called "Manthem," which hawked Dove's product line for men, culminated with a shot of the white male protagonist dancing on the shoulders of a black man.
Asked why advertising firms don't hire more blacks, Mehri said, "They don't believe that blacks can market to the mainstream." Morris, who is now the head of E. Morris Communications, an agency that specializes in advertising to black customers and, incidentally, has lost business recently as companies looking to cut corners reassign their black-oriented campaigns to the general-market firms that handle their other accounts, said, "I would say that it would make more sense, when you think about it, that African Americans would be better at creating general assignment advertising for whites than whites would be at creating advertising for blacks. There's no way I can survive in this world if I don't understand white people, whereas white people can basically survive without ever having a meaningful interaction with a black person."
Both "Manthem" and the Dove body wash ad that offended so many people this week were produced by the advertising and public relations giant Ogilvy & Mather. When it comes to hiring non-white executives, Ogilvy's record is "very, very poor," said Mehri. "They have very few, if any, minority creative directors."
Ogilvy did not respond to a request for comment. WPP, the holding company that owns Ogilvy, referred an additional request back to Ogilvy.
One of the ironies of the Dove body wash ad is that Unilever has gone out of its way in recent years to lure in customers with the message that, to quote from its recent press release, "real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes, colors and ages."
In 2004, the company launched what it called the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, a parade of ads that featured "normal-looking" women of varying shape and size and ethnicity (all of them beautiful).
Gwen Sharp, a sociologist who co-writes the blog Sociological Images, said, "It always shocks me when you have companies that I know spend enormous amount of money on their ad or their focus groups, and in the best case don't catch, and in the worst case don't care, about the cultural undertones that their ads play into."
She pointed out that Unilever also makes Fair & Lovely, a skin cream marketed to women in India that, if its advertising is to be believed, can actually make you white.