Shades of America Exploring Colorism in the Media// by: Kamilah Cole


How have the ever-changing modes through which colorist ideals are perpetuated in the media influenced the way that society is impacted by racialization in America? How does this support the concept of America as a performance?

The concept of racialization and the creation of colorist ideals within society are notions that are deeply rooted in several forms of performance. Moreover, one of the most universal performance tactics utilized to instill these ideas are media platforms: advertisements, commercials, movies, etc. As advertisements appear quite frequently, oftentimes without prompting, I have noticed that there are very few ads that do not strike me as problematic in some way, whether they involve racist, misogynistic, or hetero-centric undertones. When I continued to ponder this topic, I began to research ads from the mid-twentieth century that quite explicitly perpetuated colorist and racist ideals. When comparing these dated ads to the advertisements and commercials of today, I certainly found some parallels. However, I also noticed quite a few differences regarding the less blatant manner in which colorism is instilled in the minds of people in the present day. Thus, I plan to investigate people’s innate reactions to the varied levels of colorism in advertising. In order to further harvest several viewpoints on this topic, I will analyze people’s responses to three sources of everyday media: a simple ad used as the control, an ad that perpetuates colorism in a more underlying fashion, followed by a blatantly racist advertisement from the 1960s (all depicted below). When showing my participants the three picture ads, I will ask them to look at each photo for one minute at a time, to explain the picture at hand using five adjectives, then to voice the main idea that they notice surrounding each advertisement. Once attaining these results regarding all three ads respectively, I will finally reveal the varying levels of colorism displayed in the ads, giving each subject one final opportunity to comment on their experience with media portraying associations with different racial phenotypes. This will allow me to investigate how regardless of the methods with which we form Euro-centric views, said methods differing from year to year, the effects are contributors to the intolerance and racism within our society. Ultimately, what’s at stake here is the accepted normalization of the overall perception of race in America.


Race: one of the first things that people admit to noticing about each new person that they meet. However, is race something that can even be seen? Does race exist at all? For decades, scientists have worked tirelessly to prove that race is not something rooted in biological basis. Nevertheless, society persists to label and stereotype the people around them based upon their assumed ethnicities. This takes place due to several factors that boil down to one, concise reality: we are all products of our environment. From the billboards above our streets to the commercials on our television screens, propaganda is everywhere, swaying our perception of society at every waking moment. One of the most compelling platforms with which to instill such ideas is through advertisements—a universal form of media that has changed drastically with the progression of time.

Burger King Ad- 2012 (this ad will be used as the control when conducting interviews about colorism in the media) [All rights reserved to the Burger King Corporation]

As advertisements in the media are constantly developing and mass-persuading the public, I believed that conducting an experiment of sorts would prove beneficial in analyzing the effects of such an influential platform. This is where the three prominent ads that I initially selected came into play. Starting with the ad used as the control in this experiment, the Burger King advertisement is shown with a picture of a burger as the focal point. Other than the large picture that my eye is immediately drawn towards, the only words displayed are “50 years of flame broiled perfection,” the Burger King logo showing its own name, and the phrase, “50 Years Whopper.” As expected, when getting others’ take on this ad, the aspects of the spectacle that I noticed were also seen by the subjects. The most common adjectives used to describe this advertisement were “hungry”, “simple”, “straightforward”, “juicy”, and “enhanced.” Here, it became clear that most people to whom I presented the burger ad grasped onto the simplistic and appetizing nature of the image. One responder, Lizzie Brennan even stated, “The ad conveys its message to the audience in a clear, straightforward manner” (Brennan, 2019).

Kellogg's Pops Cereal Ad- 2017 (This is the more current ad that will be utilized when conducting interviews about colorism in the media; the other ads displayed are depicted here as further evidence) [All rights reserved to Kellogg's]
Kellogg's tweet in response to initial response to Pop's Ad- 2017 [All rights reserved to Twitter and Kellogg's]
Dove Soap Ad- 2017 [All rights reserved to the Dove Corporation]
Dove Soap Ad #2- 2011 [All rights reserved to the Dove Corporation]

While the previous ad acted as a vessel to get the subjects comfortable with analyzing the media and expressing their thoughts on the topics, this next ad is the focal point on what I sought to test. The second ad that I showed was a Kellogg’s Pops Cereal ad that could have been viewed on the back of in-store cereal boxes just a few years ago. On this ad, I see a myriad of personified Pop characters in a mall. The different characters are performing several tasks including riding in shopping carts, bathing in a fountain, and jumping rope with a cord. Attached to that cord is some sort of cleaning device, which is being controlled by a character who looks different from all the rest. This character, seemingly a custodian, is wearing a blue uniform and has a complexion that is much darker than every other character in the picture. Interested to see who, if anybody, would pick up on the misfit character that I took notice of immediately, I set out to exhibit this next advertisement to the participants. As it happened, slightly less than half of the subjects did, in fact, take notice to the one character with the darker skin tone. However, among all the participants, the most common descriptors for this ad surrounded the busy nature of the picture. Words like, “descriptive,” “confusing,” “elaborate,” and “frenzy,” were conjured up when viewing this ad. When I received these answers that all surrounded the concept of visual chaos, it brought up another thought: why does this ad have so much going on? This could be because it is catered to children. However, it can also be a tactic to distract from its problematic theme. As mentioned by one of the subjects, Emma Tavangari, “This ad is kind of crazy and chaotic… I find it strange that all the yellow figures are doing fun things save for the darker one who appears to be cleaning” (Tavangari, 2019). Similarly, another participant admitted, “…it is super sketchy that the only brown character in the entire shot is the janitor” (Cole, 2019).

Pears' Soap Ad- 1783 (This is the older ad that will be utilized when conducting interviews about colorism in the media; the other ads displayed below are depicted here as further evidence)
Fairy Soap Ad- 1940's
Cook's "Lightning" Soap Ad- 1905
Stearine Soap Ad- 19th century

[All above photos were found in the Public Domain]

This last ad that I displayed to my peers was the most blatantly problematic one of them all. I was hoping that this would mirror the facet of media that lacks care about how offensive something may be, so long as the “shock factor” raises revenue and interest in the product at hand. In this third and final ad for Pears’ Soap, I see one person—presumably a child—showing a bar of soap to another person who is in a bathtub. In the second perspective of the same scene, the first person is now holding up a mirror to the second person. As the second person looks into the mirror, he smiles as he notices that his body is now of a lighter hue than it was before using the soap. Around these two shots, words and phrases are scattered around such as “for the complexion,” “pure, fragrant, and durable,” as well as, “bold everywhere.” After gathering the subjects’ responses to this advertisement, it was clear that they all felt discomfort with the blatantly racist ground on which the ad stood. The most common descriptive words uttered were, “racist,” “ignorant,” “sickening,” and “Eurocentric,” as their mouths turned downwards in disgust. “[It’s like they’re saying] our soap is so affective, it’ll clean the negro off of you,” scoffed participant Myron Benn (Benn, 2019). So, why were such strong reactions prevalent when blatant colorism was displayed, as opposed to the hidden subliminal message that “dark is dirty” in the Pop’s ad?

"But what makes something 'good' or 'bad' varies greatly from place to place, time to time, and even occasion to occasion." -Richard Schechner

The ways in which colorist ideals are continually perpetuated in the media, whether blatantly or ever so slightly, are all different tactics that instill the general concept of race throughout society. Several scholars and authors alike support the concept of our outward environment shaping our conceptual maps. Once the breadth of the spectrum of types of performance is realized, it becomes quite simple to recognize advertisements as one central performative in America. One person who supported the concept of performance studies in this way was scholar and professor, Richard Schechner. His famous work, “What is Performance?” highlights his belief that performance can essentially be anything and everything in the world around us. He further recognized that there is a difference in “is” versus “as” performance, claiming, “Rituals, play and games, and the roles of everyday life are performances because convention, context, usage, and tradition say so” (Schechner 23). Through this interpretation of what is considered a performance, one can further investigate how advertisements in everyday media would therefore be included in this interpretation. As Diana Taylor emphasizes in her article, “Remapping Genre Through Performance: From ‘America’ to ‘Hemispheric Studies,' America is not a concrete entity of people, events, and objects. Instead, it has been molded through physical and artistic representation. Subsequently, society is taught to comply with these modes of representation, thus demonstrating how the very existence of America is a performance.

After understanding this perspective of the multifaceted nature of performance, one may question how these verbal and visual performatives come to fruition. Cultural theorist, Stuart Hall would argue that this representation develops by way of arbitrary signs that gain meaning once evolved within the conceptual map of the individual. This constructivist concept of how culture is formed, emphasizes the performative nature of such ads. Hall believes that people utilize both iconic and indexical signs to spearhead the process of meaning-making. Therefore, in America, we connect the things around us to those preconceived notions within our conceptual maps to formulate spoken and visual cues that stand for more complex concepts. This is exactly what has created racism in the world. In Hall’s words, performance in America is enacted through representation where, “[O]bjects, people, events in the world- do not have in themselves any fixed, final or true meaning. It is us- in society, within human cultures- who make things mean, who signify” (Hall 45). From this creation of understanding through performance, colorism in the human mind has been constantly reinforced through various social stimulants.

"...once we recognize the racial dimension present to some degree in every identity, institution and social practice in the United States--once we have done this, it becomes possible to speak of racial formation." -Michael Omi and Howard Winant

Overall, my goal for this project was to prove what sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant sought to support with their racial formation theory. In that theory, they expressed how race is not an inherent, biologically based entity that forms the separations among races. In fact, there are only microbiological differences between one race or another. However, this does not mean that all race and ethnicities are equal in the eyes of society. Instead, race has been centralized by the people. While this is an issue that persists in all regions, it also differs from country to country and changes as time persists. Thus, this ideology was the basis for what I went to demonstrate within my own investigations. As depicted in the results of my experiment, the acknowledgment of racialization differs from one year to the next. However, its presence never ceases to exist. This is why my participants were outraged by the 1960’s ads, but if I were to go back in time and poll people living in this decade, they more than likely would not express the same disgust. Regardless of the methods with which we form Euro-centric views, the effects are nevertheless contributors to the intolerance and racism within our society. Moreover, this experiment showcased how America is a malleable vessel that has been created by all stimuli that is presented to us in day-to-day life: whether that be through literature, billboards, or the media.


Cole, Kamilah. “Exploring Colorism in the Media Cainan Cole Interview.” 11 Nov. 2019.

Cole, Kamilah. “Exploring Colorism in the Media Emma Tavangari Interview.” 11 Nov. 2019.

Cole, Kamilah. “Exploring Colorism in the Media Kavya Raghavendhran Interview.” 11 Nov. 2019.

Cole, Kamilah. “Exploring Colorism in the Media Lizzie Brennan Interview.” 11 Nov. 2019.

Cole, Kamilah. “Exploring Colorism in the Media Myron Benn Interview.” 11 Nov. 2019.

Cole, Kamilah. “Exploring Colorism in the Media Taryn Smythe Interview.” 11 Nov. 2019.

Hall, Stuart. “Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates.” Stuart Hall Lives: Cultural Studies in an Age of Digital Media, 2018, pp. 10–32., doi:10.4324/9781315158549-3.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formations. 2014.

Schechner, Richard. “Performance Studies.” What Is Performance?, 2012, doi:10.4324/9780203715345.

Taylor, Diana. “Remapping Genre through Performance: From ?American? to ?Hemispheric? Studies.” Pmla, vol. 122, no. 5, 2007, pp. 1416–1430., doi:10.1632/pmla.2007.122.5.1416.


Created with images by Melany Rochester - "Unite the Right 2 Counter Protests 8.12.18" • Charisse Kenion - "untitled image" • Jace & Afsoon - "Narrow architecture in Berlin"