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.