Study Finds Racial Bias in Advertising Industry

Researchers say disparity is widespread problem

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diversitymandisgruntlednew“Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark,” Nat King Cole said about the advertising industry in 1957 after he abandoned his eponymously named television show. Despite the show’s success, no advertisers were willing give national sponsorship to the first show hosted by a black man.

A new study released yesterday by the Madison Avenue Project, a partnership between the NAACP and civil rights law firm Mehri & Skalet P.L.L.C., addresses racial disparities that continue to exist in the advertising industry. (Madison Avenue and the ad industry have been synonymous since the explosive growth in the New York City street in the 1920s.)

The study found that compared with the overall labor market, the racial pay gap in advertising is more than twice as large as it was 30 years ago– evidence Cyrus Mehri says is proof that things have not changed much since Cole’s show.

“Forty-five years after the passage of the civil rights act of 1964, they are still a closed society. They are an industry where favoritism rules the day and merit is cast aside,” says Mehri, founding partner of Mehri & Skalet. Mehri has served as co-lead class counsel in some of the largest and most significant race and gender cases in history.

Among other issues, “Research Perspectives on Race and Employment in the Advertising Industry” measures the pay gap between whites and blacks and addresses what can be done to rectify the problem. The study, conducted by Bendick and Egan Economic Consultants, found that the black—white gap averages 38% larger in advertising than in the overall U.S. labor market. Additionally, blacks with the same qualifications would need to be paid 25% more to earn the same as whites.

Urging inclusion

“We are going to call on all of the clients and companies that rely on the multibillion- dollar advertising industry to take a really good and hard look at the facts surrounding African American employment and to join the Madison Avenue Project in seeking change,” said Angela Ciccolo, interim general counsel/secretary to the NAACP.

In order to even the playing field in this $31 billion a year industry, leading global advertising companies such as Omnicon, WPP, Interpublic, and Publicis would need to triple the employment of black managers and professionals, which, at the present rate, will not occur for another 71 years, according to the study.

“Madison Avenue erected a semi-apartheid marketing system in America,” says Sanford Moore, a radio personality on Kiss-FM, who worked for both general market agencies and minority-owned agencies for more than 40 years. “The industry wants to terrorize the financial situation [of black media, whether magazine or radio] by discounting the importance of black consumers.”

The study suggests that public oversight and pressure from advertising agencies’ client firms could also be a promising source to influence advertising agencies to decrease the employment, promotion, and pay gap.

Earl G. Graves Jr., president and CEO of Earl G. Graves Publishing, which publishes Black Enterprise magazine and, and an outspoken

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  • Wow, very interesting!


  • Doesn’t it seem like we “discover” America every five years or so? As if the problem has not been staring us in our faces all along. In fact, this kind of virulent racism and discrimination is in every area of image making: advertising, fashion, magazines, film, stage, television, and even social media (though I think we can save the latter if we move aggressively to claim new media territory). Do you think things will be different in the “Age of Obama?”

  • Here’s a better question. Is it safe to say that if whites monopolize the decision making process in the advertising industry, they also have the ability determine the success of the media outlets that receive those vital dollars being spent by their clients.

    The range of products being pitched at African-Americans via the radio, TV networks and websites that cater to them seems to be quite limited. But, the truth is most of the products we consume are the same as those white people consume.

    I’m tired of seeing McDonalds, Ford, Cadillac and KFC a million times a day.

    As an owner of a website, I know first hand that the advertising dollars being spent on “urban” outlets and the number of companies spending those dollars is very limited. That needs to be addressed as well.

  • Ms Carrie

    Hmmm… Good article! Obviously we all knew about the bias before the study was conducted. Kudos to the NAACP for an effort that appears to be only a pin prick compared to the size of the problem. But a pin prick is all that is needed to deflate a balloon. The advertising medium has ballooned out of control in this country in terms of formulating and perpetuating stereotypes. It’s no great surprise that people of color are marginalized in employment in this industry. Look at how we are represented in the media. (Or not represented in so many cases). Racism in advertising will not easily be eradicated because the negative ideas about blacks are so deeply entrenched in this almost lily white bastion of white supremacy. (Okay I’m bitter but with good reason!)
    Ms Hill said it plainly in the article in advertising double-speak: “…nothing to do with skin color, but is simply a case of being the “right person at the right time.” What? Are we sure that “AAAA” doesn’t stand for Advertising Against African-Americans? Ms. Hill is also chief diversity officer at AAAA. Maybe they need to do some more hiring.

  • Ms. Grant

    These are very solvable problems, give me the list of companies who are excluding “us”, I will exclude them! We have allot of power with our dollars. I also agree with a statement made above, there are allot of advertisements made toward inner-city type folks, most African Americans live in Rural areas and I never see us represented. I don’t want to beg people to change, I think we should build our own enterprise that is more attractive and pull people in who want to be apart of it ,there by making our enterprise the “mainstream”. That is where the power is. Not begging people to treat us right, waiting for it to happen, and keeping them in power in the process!

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