Advertising and Natural Hair in Main Stream Media

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I posed the following to the CurlyNikki community based on some observations that I had made in regards to mainstream media and got some really interesting responses.  The responses were so interesting that I’ve decided that I will try to follow up these questions by doing some research on the subject matter.  When I find some extra time in between everything, I plan to try to contact some of the larger advertising/marketing firms and casting agencies to see if they will give me some insight into their process when looking for diversity.  If I can’t reach the larger ones, I’ll contact some smaller local agencies.  Here is the text from CurlyNikki and a few of my favorite comments.  Click here to read more of the comments.

I’ve noticed a lot more curly, coily and kinky naturals in commercials and print advertisements lately. As a graphic designer, I’m always looking at how things are marketed. While I’m excited to see so much representation in main stream media, it brings up a couple questions for me:

1. If marketers and big name brands feel that natural hair is acceptable enough to use natural haired models (the whole curl spectrum) in their ads, why are there still misconceptions that it’s dirty, unkempt, not professional, etc? If Loews, Chase, Mirena and other big name multi-million dollar companies think it’s good enough to represent their brand, why isn’t it good enough to represent an individual?

2. In marketing and graphic design we try to use imagery that will appeal to the demographic that we are trying to reach. As a graphic designer, I have to make someone do some sort of action (buy, call, sell, use a product or service) using only their eyes. By using natural haired models, marketers are obviously trying to reach a certain demographic. I often wonder who that demographic is. If the majority of African American women have relaxed hair and many African American men do not neccessarily care for natural hair, then why use a natural haired model if that is the target demographic? It makes me wonder if to marketers, natural hair is perceived as being “blacker,” especially when that model appears with other models of different nationalities. Almost like saying “hey you, black person, buy this product. She’s not a token because she has kinky hair, so that makes her black and therefore relatable.” Maybe African Americans specifically are not the target, especially in ads that do not feature any other nationalities and are not products or services specific to African Americans. I wonder if a natural haired model in those cases appeals to mass audiences because her hair is NOT the typical straight hair usually seen on African American women. This would make her non-specific to any particular race and makes her more of an everyman.

Maybe I am thinking to hard about this, but it always interests me to know why marketers and brands choose to market the way that they do. I’ve found that many times the marketing strategies of some companies really are that deep and intricate and other times not so much.


“Here’s my theory on it:  Before I started seeing this influx of natural haired black women in ads, I remember seeing a whole lot of whom I would describe as racially ambiguous women in ads. It seemed as if these women would be too dark to be white, but too light to be unmistakably declared as black, since she could have been Latino or something “other.” I strongly suspect that the natural haired black women leaves no doubt that yes, she is definitely a black woman. Even if she is fair skinned, that hair is the black truth. Relaxed haired women see her and although they might not want her hair style, they know that she’s black. Black men and white people see her and they have no doubt. Also, since she does not look like the average black woman (because natural hair is not the norm for us yet), maybe some people might not be turned off by the ad because she’s “different.” She doesn’t look like the neck-rolling Bonqueesha that rang up their organic spring mix salad at the grocery store…This woman in the ad looks more like a college professor or someone from the Cosby Show. LOL. Maybe many white people need for us to seem “different from the rest” in order to be comfortable.” –Anon

“Natural hair reads as “hip” and “with it” to many white consumers – it’s acceptably diverse, different but not too out there. I think marketers tend to prefer natural-haired models because they read as “cool” to white consumers – this model could easily be your Cool Black Girlfriend.  I also wonder if black women in predominately white communities are more likely to be natural than black women in heavily black communities (fewer black folk = fewer places to get that touch-up), and so the models may be more representative of the black women white consumers come into regular contact with. That’s just my off-the-wall theory, though.” –Frankie

“What about the use of natural hair models in advertising in countries where the black population is very low, such as the U.K.

Here black people are less than 2% of the population, yet appear in a significantly larger percentage of advertising and often times with natural hair, which hasn’t caught on as rapidly in the black population here as it has in the U.S.  And this advertising trend has been ongoing for at least 10 years.  What could be the explanation for this? –Anon

“I’m in advertising too and I’m sooooooooo glad to see the shift in natural hair models. In recent years, I’ve seen a number of them, in mainstream commercials.It’s a welcome change from the 90s… when the only thing you saw was straight hair models, because the was mainly the style you saw at the time (the only natural hair “icons” back then were Lisa Nicole Carson in the late 90s and Cree Summer from Different World in the early 90s. Now, I like the diversity. But … here’s the thing: We’re seeing mainstream products marketed with natural hair models. When will we see “black” hair care products marketed with natural mods? I think it will be a while. Usually, you get the horrible Dr. Miracle commercials or natural hair is seen as a “bad” thing and then poof, it’s magically straightened and so it’s *supposed* to be better than kinky! I don’t think white folks are thinking too hard about our natural hair because: 1. They love it. 2. They accept it quicker than we do(SMH). 3. It’s not that big of a deal for them, but they do want that hipster look.” –CurlyintheA

“In the U.K biracial/mixed race people have worn their hair out and loose since Mel B popped up in the 90s. This look of a free curl-fro was just a style of kids with white mothers who maybe didn’t know what to do with their hair but advertisers, marketing people and the fashion industry couldn’t help but relate to it and find it desirable.

In fashion and advertising circles natural is definitely viewed as more authentically ‘black’ than perms or weaves plus of the 2% of us here, few of us are natural hair wearers and the majority of UK naturals seem to be mixed race not black.

I do think that for non-blacks our hair is definitely tied to a notion of defiance, confidence, retro hipster culture and as someone said, the cool black girl.

However, I beg to differ on the above person from the UK who reckons that there are loads of black natural in ads here. Fashion definitely celebrates a certain kind of black female in the UK usually the opposite of the middle class black girl, people are more fond of girls that have ‘made good’ i.e don’t come from great backgrounds and were discovered in say our equivalent of TJ Maxx. The commercial advertising world here is completely different in that whenever they need a non white person of some black origin, it is always a mixed race person. Often there is a black father and a mixed child but no mother present. There are never any black women in ads with mixed children and the only black ad family are currently advertising pizza hut. They often tie black people to ads where the main focus is how you can save money on something and it most definitely speaks to our position as black people in the UK.

US ads with black people playing lawyers, business people etc are a revelation to me as we just are not portrayed that way in the UK at all.” -Anon

“Yes, I agree w/ one of the early posts. I think it def. has to do with buying power and the perception (rightly or wrongly) that Bonqueesha is wearing the blonde weave with purple highlights and the Black girl at your college is wearing the twist out. It’s meant to appeal to whites and the college educated Black crowd.  As for always having natural representation? Not quite. Yeah, we had the Pine-Sol lady, but she was middle aged, over weight with braids. Oh yeah, and she “sounded” black. She was more like the nanny than any educated, white person’s colleague. Now, the naturals are fit, young and (to quote white folks) “well-spoken”. It’s vastly different and it’s not just 1 or 2 token commercials. We’re NOT just selling Pine-Sol and Dairy Queen anymore. We’re at Chase, Fidelity, GNC, H&M, Express etc. I’ve been natural since birth and I LOVE IT! My mom notices the diff. too :)” –Anon

Very interesting responses, don’t you agree?

Freelance Graphic Designer, Lifestyle Blogger, Natural Hair Enthusiast and Fitness Convert...yeah, I wear a lot of hats. :)

  • Tiffany

    I do agree that these comments are interesting and thought-provoking. I don’t have a background in marketing, but I am slowly looking into how natural hair is represented in the media. I see lots of advertisements with naturals, and most of them are rocking twist-outs, not afros or locs.

    • NaturalArtMaven

      Hmmm, I hadn’t even paid attention to that aspect. Now, I’m going to be looking for it.

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