Colorism is defined as prejudicial or preferential treatment of people of the same-race people based solely on their color. Research has shown that colorism can affect relationship selection, life chances, perceived self-worth, and attractiveness among other people. Research studies have also shown lighter skin tones are often associated with more positive attributes compared to darker skin tones in the market. In advertising, often, lighter skin tones or bi-racial lighter skin are selected over darker skin tones, but very little research has examined how countenance impacts colorist bias.
Which is where we come in, more research is needed on studying the impact of smiling countenance on varying skin tones to bust certain myths in the industry. This not only has implications for Black Americans but wider across all people of color globally and how they are featured in advertising.
Kantar's Neuroscience Practice collaborated with the University of Colorado Boulder to explore how Black American models’ skin luminance and facial expressions (smiles) influence "implicit” emotional and explicit attitudinal reactions to DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) & advertising impact across different demography – Black American, Whites and Other groups.
Kantar research, using neuroscience techniques, shows that audiences with diverse backgrounds respond favorably to advertising featuring ethnically diverse models. Yet within ethnicities, models vary in terms of skin tone/appearance. Across and within ads, models can convey varied emotional expressions which have not been researched using implicit techniques. Whenever we research race, color or sexual orientation, it’s important to understand consumer’s implicit reactions due to implicit bias.
Implicit techniques were used to measure spontaneous reactions to neutral and smiling faces of Black American Models and explicit techniques for considered reactions when the models were cast in a static ad concept.
3 different models were selected to remove any ‘face bias’ in the study. Stimuli – Models with Natural, Low and High Luminance (skin tone) with Neutral and Smiling faces were shown – each monadically to a matched sample of White, Black Americans and Others.
There were also some limitations of research in the study which were: limited to male models, limited to Black models, limited to “ad concepts” for attitude measures (not real ads, brands), and Luminance digitally manipulated (some of the negative reactions could be due to perceived unnaturalness).
For Implicit reactions we were using reaction times, and we access people’s ‘automatic’ responses to neutral and smiling faces. Positive and Negative Associations were tested. All respondents completed Intuitive Associations for all models.
We assessed both positive and negative associations:
Positive associations included: Inclusive, Caring, Likeable, Relatable, Attractive, Trustworthy and Diverse.
Negative Associations included: Scary, Annoying, Threatening, Aggressive, repulsive, Irritating, and Pretentious.
For explicit (stated Intent) technique, the same models with varied luminance were shown to separate samples of Black, White, Other participants. Each image paired with a product for “ad concept tests.” 3 different images were used to remove image bias. Each participant saw three ad image-model pairings (three male faces).
Pairing with product images were randomized Four ad-attitudes were measured for each model-product pair:
Like - How much does the consumer like the ad?
DEI - How committed the consumer thinks that the company is to diversity, equity, & inclusion
Purchase intent - Would the consumer consider making a purchase from the company? Positive impact: To what extent the consumer believes the ad will have a positive effect on people who have been previously underrepresented in advertising?
- The scourge of colorism should not steer creators away from utilizing people with darker skin tones in their messaging. Research shows that smiling models with darker skin appeal to everyone.
- Natural Luminance also has good appeal among Black Americans and Whites. High Luminance appeals more to non-Whites. This should allow marketers to work with varying skin tones.
- Focus on positive reactions (delight, satisfaction, problem resolution) especially with darker toned models.
- Lastly, positive and authentic representation matters, especially for minority audiences. Smiling and authentic color representation can help people appreciate ad models’ diversity, which spills over into their explicit evaluations of the advertising itself.
- Ad design needs to be inclusive, drawing people of all backgrounds into the story, making products (or brands or situations) feel relevant to people regardless of their identity or ability.
- Ads need to be representative not only of different ethnicities but also people of different hues (within a given ethnicity).