OPINION: Clicks hair debacle teaches us that advertising industry needs to transform
By Shannon Landers
I was aghast at how the tone-deaf TREsemmé/Clicks advertising campaign, rooted in racist and derogatory discourses about Afro-textured hair, could be made public.
While the focus of the debacle has largely been on the lack of diversity and transformation in the advertising industry, this is a far more complex issue, entrenched in systems of representation and identity.
Representation connects meaning and language to culture. It involves using language – signs and images – to represent people and things. Meaning depends on the relationship between things in the world and our mental representations of them.
This is how we construct the social world we inhabit. Representation becomes problematic when systems are designed to construct dominance and subordination among different groups. The result is that dominant forms of representation become internalised as a normative practice, thereby promoting unconscious bias.
Black hair has always been political. In the Americas, the physical violence of the “comb test” was administered on African slaves to determine privilege. Lighter-skinned slaves with “less” kinky hair received better treatment than slaves with “typical” African features. A similar process was adopted in South Africa, during apartheid, where the pencil test was administered to determine race and privilege.
The cultural and symbolic assault on afro-textured hair has spawned a lucrative industry patronised by many black women who spend a fortune on chemicals, weaves and wigs to attain a “preferred” hair texture.
The circulation of images that perpetuate unconscious bias about hair, like the TREsemmé advert, is violent because it promotes ideas embedded in racist colonial and apartheid ideas that black hair is bad and undesirable.
The negative connotations of afro-textured hair being wild, unprofessional and militant have denied black women the ability to nurture and love their hair. This violence is further entrenched when white women appropriate afro-textured hairstyles for fashion and beauty fads. This act exploits the trauma of a subordinated group of people for selfish gain.
The natural hair movement has grown. Black women have used social media platforms to promote natural hair products while encouraging women with afro-textured hair to embrace their kinks and curls. This has resulted in some retail outlets selling organic hair products. This indicates a change in the perception of afro-textured hair by black female consumers, although more needs to be done to change the way hair texture is represented in mainstream media.
The Clicks debacle is a teachable moment. The first lesson is that the advertising industry is in need of redress and transformation. Diversity is not only the presence of black people in corporate spaces, it includes meaningful participation and representation of diverse voices in these spaces.
The second lesson is that we need to realise the power we have, as black consumers, to hold corporate companies accountable.
Correcting flawed representation in the hair and beauty industry requires a multilayered approach. The supply chain and the advertising campaigns needs to be audited. Representation is fundamental in forming our perception of people, events and objects.
It is a process of engagement, learning and unlearning ways of being. Although diversity is a starting point, education is required to uproot biased, unsubstantiated prejudices.
Landers is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Communication, Media and Society at the University of KwaZuluNatal.