How Shea Moisture Let Black Women Down

How Shea Moisture Let Black Women Down

Advertising makes us feel that we’re not enough. That how we look is not enough. That what we have is too little of a good thing, therefore we need more. It makes us feel like what we do is not brave enough, strong enough, adventurous enough, intelligent enough. In short, not good enough. Exposure to these adverts creates a constant feeling of insecurity about how we look and what we do. This is manipulation. Put this treatment in the context of a relationship and its emotional abuse.

Dr Mark Miller, a professor of media and culture at NYU said this of advertising in the award winning documentary The True Cost: “It wants you to believe that you’ll look wonderful in that thing, but then to put it on and feel like you look kind of fat in it… [then] you’re sorry you bought it.” But that’s okay, because “there’s another one you can buy.” This tactic is common in advertisements that are aimed at women. An unfortunately reliable example is Protein World, a repeat offender. In their 2015 summer campaign, they had a beautiful model looking down from posters that asked passers-by whether they were ‘beach body ready.’ The offence was in the implication that there’s only one definition of beauty – only one way to look in order to truly earn those summertime good vibes: skinny, white and ageless.

But, typically speaking, adverts don’t just exploit our insecurities. Clever advertisers try to tap into our emotions to win our dollar. One effective way of doing this is by associating it with things we already feel good about. This means literally placing a product next to guaranteed crowd-pleasers. Think baby, puppy or (for those still living in the ’50s) an objectified attractive person, usually female. Come to think of it, the latter is not yet a thing of the past. This technique is called affective conditioning, and it’s also favoured by politicians.

Affective conditioning is one of the most powerful tactics in advertising. It creates a ‘good feeling’ about a product by placing it with other things we have more confidence in, whether that be our love for nature or our worshiping of a certain standard of beauty. Enter Shea Moisture. Topically speaking, one could argue that the haircare giant used affective conditioning by having ‘honest’ accounts from relatable sources to sell their products, thereby spreading the popular notion of self-love. Only, to paraphrase a questionable Shakespearean character, it came too short.

The brand rose to international acclaim with the support of women of colour, who were blessed with (and burdened by) their coils and curls. Encouraging these women to love themselves was, indeed, always a part of the brand’s message. While they might have been unique in their championing of – let’s just say it – black women, Shea Moisture certainly wouldn’t have achieved the success they have today without them. Why, then, did they promptly forget their on-brand demographic the moment they went mainstream? Was the pull of kow-towing to the status quo too strong, resulting in a fear of failure? Perhaps it was simply a matter of profit: reach a wider demographic, make more money.

Shea Moisture

So Shea Moisture tried it. That is, tried to use affective conditioning to their advantage. On two counts. And failed. In both regards. Regardless, the advert that set the internet world off was not discreet about its manipulative use of the halo effect. Clearly, the team at Shea Moisture thought they’d try for the BOGOF offer: use white women as ‘real life’ benefactors of the brand. Thus the brand is seen as being more trustworthy, classier and more universal than if they’d gone with their real demographic: the often too marginalised WoC. I hasten to add that Garnier, L’Oréal, Head & Shoulders and the like have no qualms about representing their demographic.

Dr Miller also said that “it’s important to understand that advertising is a species, or category of, propaganda. We think of propaganda as a totalitarian thing…we think of Hitler. We [see] it as a foreign thing. It’s actually as American as apple pie.” And since the UK often takes its cultural cues from the US, we can be sure the tropes found in American advertising are rife here, too. Though we may feel adept at ignoring such blatant tricks, we also have to be aware that there are other, more obscure, forms of artistic propaganda. The prominence of social media, for example, has allowed new ways for marketers to reach our collective conscience.

YouTube stars are known for their ‘Haul’ videos, in which they brag about their monthly high street purchases, encouraging an appetite for mindless consumption in their audience. Meanwhile, in the world of Instagram, influencers are known to throw  a “sponsored” tag in the caption of every other post. Pre-mandatory disclaimers, both groups came under fire for lack of authenticity; it seemed they were using their likeability to exploit their audiences. The sinister thing is that, even now, fans aren’t clued up  on the fact that their favourite influencers have been bought. Awkward, since the draw of the blogger is their refreshingly pedestrian and honest perspective.

Unfortunately, some still see transparency as optional. At least with advertising, we know what we’re allowing into the most personal of spaces: our mind.


Written by  Patricia Yaker Ekall


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