Cultural Appropriation, Stereotyping, and Racism in Digital Advertising

This article is part of a larger series that focuses on
diversity and equity in marketing through the amplification of
Black and racially diverse authors. As a company, we are committed
to identifying actions we can take in the fight against racism and
injustice, and elevating BIPOC voices is paramount to inspiring
Follow along and read other posts in this series here.

This post is authored by Le’Shae Robinson, an event planner,
digital advertising specialist, and Director of Operations for
nonprofit, NoLi CDC.

Imagine my face when I opened up an ad for a trampoline park
that read “It’s lit” with three White kids on it. As the only
Black person on my team, I was stunned—“It’s lit” is a term
made popular by Houston rapper Travis Scott.

It was 2016, and I had just landed a job working for a digital
advertising agency. My responsibilities included reviewing ads from
clients across the country to make sure their ad images were the
right size, URLs pointed to the correct website per the ad,
double-checking the demographics the ads were supposed to be
targeting, and making sure budgets aligned with clients’

Basically, I was quality control for the team before they
entered the ad into the platform and it was pushed to customers. It
was here where I learned how racism plays a part in digital

Cultural appropriation in 2020

Cultural appropriation was the result that came from running ads
that said things like “It’s lit” while not showing any
African American people. It’s an old American story to profit
from parts of Black culture without reference. It’s especially
hurtful when it comes to music: We can’t forget how Elvis Presley
went on to become the King of Rock and Roll, but heavily studied
Black musicians and mimicked their singing and dancing styles. The
artists who influenced him saw nowhere near the amount of success
Elvis did—that is the true problem with cultural

The digital ads this agency ran also contributed to inequality.
One story in particular that stands out to me was an ad for a
private school. The ad encouraged viewers to apply, showcasing the
advantages of what their school offered. The demographics
specifically targeted Caucasian people. I found it interesting that
the client specifically wanted to target that demographic.
Instantly I thought, “Wow.” What if there were other races who
might be interested in what the school had to offer?

I voiced my concern to the team, and they, too, thought it was
odd. However, the sales rep for the account insisted this was what
their client wanted. We could have changed the demographic before
we entered the order, but we feared what would happen if the client
got applications from people outside of the targeted demographic.
Would they dump us as an agency? Our backs were up against the

I had to wonder how many qualified candidates of color missed
the opportunity to attend the private school because the ad was
targeted only to White people? I grew up going to public school and
had an overall good experience. There were times, though, when I
experienced situations I’m almost certain didn’t happen at a
private school. (For example, 13 fights in one day taking away from
learning time.) Imagine my parents being exposed to advertising for
a private school. Would I be more accomplished? Would I have a
better professional network? Would I have a better job? I’ll
never know.

Stereotyping as a means of marketing

Stereotyping target audiences is another way racism rears its
ugly head in the digital advertising industry.

An order came through one day for mouth grills. The image for
this ad was a mouth grill that featured gold teeth in front of a
black background. The ad ran as a mobile ad, which meant it would
be displayed only on cellphones and other mobile devices. What made
this racist? It specifically targeted Black barbershops and people
who had a household income of $40,000 or less per year.

When advertisers showcase items like mouth grills to people who
frequent Black establishments or don’t make a lot of money, it
reaffirms certain stereotypes. The client likely missed out on
sales because of this bias. There are plenty of people who own a
mouth grill and make significantly more than $40,000 a year. In
today’s climate, wearing a mouth grill is similar to wearing
other accessories like earrings, necklaces, or watches.

If someone were to attend a Travis Scott or Migos concert, there
is a high chance they would see concert-goers wearing a grill.
These are the same people who have office jobs and can afford
high-dollar concerts. They just don’t wear this accessory to

Consequences of following orders

Processing these orders, I often reflected on the true
consequences of cultural appropriation, inequality, and
stereotyping by running these ads.

Right now there is a call for racial equality. But it was my
position as a quality control specialist that taught me racial
equality is more than just asking for cops not to kneel on
people’s necks. As our technology continues to evolve, racial
equality could look like advertising educational opportunities to
all people; giving Black people an opportunity to model in ads that
use cultural references; finding a way to give credit to the origin
of a particular phrase. There are many possibilities.

The call I make for advertising professionals is this: when
working on projects, ask yourself, “How will this influence other
cultures? Is there an opportunity to honor other cultures through
this work? Is there anything about this project that would
negatively impact another culture?”

Challenge yourself today not to just do your job—ask the tough
questions and find innovative ways to make clients make more money
while also fighting racial inequality.

It is possible.

Le’Shae Robinson is a jack of all trades. She has worked as an
event planner, digital advertising specialist, and now as the
Director of Operations for the NoLi CDC (a nonprofit that works to
better housing and economic development in Lexington, KY). She also
enjoys writing and providing social media management to local small
businesses. Recently she won an award for a social media campaign
that she led where her client earned the most meals per capita in
an effort to fight hunger awareness. You can read her most
recently published work here.
In her free time, she enjoys
spending time with her family, learning new recipes, and listening
to Beyonce.

Visit this page to see more in the series,
or check back for
our next guest post.

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Cultural Appropriation, Stereotyping, and Racism in Digital
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Cultural Appropriation, Stereotyping, and Racism in Digital