ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The genealogy company Ancestry has removed and apologized for an ad that featured a fictional pre-Civil War romance between a black woman and a white man.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) There's a place we can be together - across the border. Will you leave with me?
SHAPIRO: Then text says - without you, the story stops here. As many people pointed out on social media, the ad overlooks the fact that during slavery, many relationships between black women and white men were forced, not consensual.
Ancestry is just the latest company to stumble over a racially offensive advertising campaign. A couple of years ago, Nivea tried the tag line white is purity. Last year, Ram trucks aired a Super Bowl ad that paired a Martin Luther King speech with the line built to serve. And just a few months ago, Gucci apologized for a turtleneck sweater that depicted blackface. So why does this keep happening?
Well, Nikole Hannah-Jones, reporter for The New York Times, focuses on racial injustice and joins us to discuss that question. Hi.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Hi. How are you?
SHAPIRO: I'm fine.
So how would you answer that question? Why does this keep happening? You would think that businesses would learn from the mistakes of people who have done this before. And yet, they seem to keep stepping in it.
HANNAH-JONES: I mean, I think it's happening for a few reasons. I think that, in general, we have a very unsophisticated way of understanding race and racism and the history of race and racism in this country. Many people don't really understand, particularly white Americans, that the language that they're using and the depictions that they're coming up for our advertising are offensive.
I think another reason is, a lot of times, the teams who are coming up with this advertising don't have people of color on the teams or at least people of color who can have a strong, influential role on the campaigns that come out.
SHAPIRO: We reached out to Ancestry, and they sent us a statement saying, in part, Ancestry is committed to telling important stories from history. This ad was intended to represent one of those stories. We very much appreciate the feedback we have received and apologize for any offense that the ad may have caused.
Now, I know you posted on Twitter inviting anyone who worked on or was aware of the ad campaign to send you a message and start a conversation. Did anyone reach out?
HANNAH-JONES: I heard from a couple of folks, but no one who worked directly on this campaign. What I did hear is more generally about the problems in the ad agencies - that often they are not very diverse and that if there are people of color who serve on these teams, they do not feel empowered enough to push back on some of these campaigns.
SHAPIRO: I'm thinking about the catchphrase representation matters and how this may be a pretty specific example of what exactly that catchphrase means.
HANNAH-JONES: Yeah, of course. I mean, when you think about the Ancestry campaign, it is romanticizing slavery. And it is clearly coming from the perspective of someone who wants to make it appear as if the high rates of white ancestry in black Americans' blood could have come from, you know, a loving relationship - which of course it could have - but that's the most unlikely scenario. Had you had a black person on that campaign, the chances that that came out, I think, would have been a lot less.
SHAPIRO: How do you think companies can avoid mistakes like this? Because they seem to just keep making them.
HANNAH-JONES: (Laughter) I mean, one, you need to actually have people from diverse racial backgrounds on your marketing teams. I think you need to also have focus groups and introduce these campaigns before you roll them out. And you have to empower the people of color if you do have them on your team. It doesn't do any good if the only people of color on your teams are the least senior, who can raise an objection and that objection is not heard. We also shouldn't let white people off the hook in this case. So a white person who actually has an interest in these things could understand and raise a red flag, as well.
The whole job of marketing people is to understand and to know the people whom they're marketing to. So in some ways, it just feels like laziness. Like, you didn't actually do the type of research that you probably did in every other aspect of the campaign to see if maybe this wasn't a good idea.
SHAPIRO: That's Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times. Thanks so much for talking with us today.
HANNAH-JONES: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.