Unilever's Ads and the History of Sexual Abuse Under SlaveryBreaking News
tags: slavery, racism, Black History, advertisements, bodies
Thomas A. Foster is a professor of history and associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard University.
In a typical US advertisement for Magnum ice cream, a young, attractive white woman devours an ice-cream treat coated in chocolate. The sexist advertising gimmick of using a sexualized woman to sell a product is patently obvious. What’s less clear about the ads is that they contain racialized symbolism. The brand is sexualized by its apparently intentional association with the condom brand that markets itself as designed for larger-than-average penises. In many of the ads, a white woman suggestively places the ice cream in her mouth. That the ice cream is dark chocolate-coated suggests a specific connection to the historically taboo intimacy of Black men and White women.
The British-Dutch parent company Unilever has come under fire before in the US for racist advertisements, including for Dove body wash, and in other countries for their racist promotions of Magnum ice cream. A commercial widely used across the globe clearly deploys this racial symbolism. In Pakistan in 2016, Magnum launched an ad campaign by having a Black man covered in chocolate sit in a bathtub, a feminized space associated with indulgence and sensuality — the man evidently himself waiting to be consumed, his body indistinguishable from the chocolate confection.
Some might see the Magnum advertisement as entirely about the pleasures of ice cream, maybe even positive, if we accept that the sub-text depiction of Black men casts them as desirable. The Magnum commercial that I see, however, is but one example of how the dominant culture today still uses images of Black men as symbols of pleasure and power than can be consumed, harnessed, and used by whites for their own purposes.
I know that I interpret the Magnum ads in a particular way because my most recent research has been about sexual exploitation of enslaved men, and it has sensitized me to the sexual exploitation of Black men that carries on to this day from a system created for the purposes of enslavement. Under slavery, Black men were characterized as hypersexual. Sexualized imagery of Black men first emerged significantly in the early nineteenth century.
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