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Some think the Naomi Campbell controversy over Cadbury comparing the deep-hued beauty to a chocolate bar is silly. After all, this woman abuses maids and cavorts with a married man. There are more serious problems in the world, and Naomi Campbell is the cause of some of them; but, personality flaws aside, one can be both a perpetrator and a victim. In the looming case of Cadbury versus Naomi, Ms. Campbell makes a compelling argument for racism in advertising that has a documented history. Naomi Campbell might sue Cadbury for calling her “chocolate” in a recent ad — but if she does, she will be giving advertisers what they deserve. Taking a needed stand against their willful perpetuation of stereotypes could redeem for Naomi Campbell’s own sordid history.

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Racism in ads began with the advent of the popular press and continued openly through the mid-20th century. An extremely popular theme for soap advertising of the older era promoted the idea that washing black skin white was a testimony to a product’s power. Fast forward to today — a recent ad for Dove body wash illustrated the same idea in an understated fashion. By featuring a black model in the “before” area of the ad in front of crusty brown skin, and a white woman “after” using Dove in front of a creamy dermis, the advertiser recreated the old story line: Dove soap is so good, it will wash a black girl white!

How did this happen? Even if this was not the intention, it was read that way by so many people, it spurred Internet-wide rage.  Dove’s claim? Ignorance.

Or take the Duncan Hines Hip-Hop cupcakes fiasco. This cake company was truly shocked that black people would find the beat-boxing, Sambo confections (goggled-eyed, thick-lipped and dripping with cocoa brown “skin”) anything but entertaining. Anyone with two shreds of cultural awareness would not have put this ad together — let alone promoted it to millions as a wholesome statement from a popular family brand.  And yet it was done, by people who – again — “didn’t know.”

Unconscious race complexes continue to live on as iconic black stereotypes in advertising, because ad creators won’t own up to their ignorance. Thus we have the repetition of offensive images, and the confusion about why they are so bad. The only antidote to this process is sensitivity, awareness and knowledge.  Ignorance of the racist past and the way ads make people of color feel (because WE remember racism’s history) can no longer be an acceptable excuse. Today there are too many remedies.

And in this case, Cadbury knew. British publication The Guardian reports that this is in fact the THIRD TIME this candy company has come under fire for offending the black community.  “We didn’t know” in Cadbury’s case really means they just don’t care about previous accusations – and it is this type of conscious blindness that advertisers must immediately stop.

These image makers need to take responsibility for how they depict black skin for their financial advantage. And Naomi Campbell is the woman to make them take it.

Some think Naomi Campbell should not use her cultural clout to combat racism in advertising, saving her power to fight more concrete issues affecting blacks in her country. I don’t agree. No one will make these image creators get the racial education they obviously need if they are not faced with consequences. There are plenty of courses on race and the media, lots of examples of old racist advertising online, and many other ways the “we just didn’t know” problem could have been buried as dead long ago. But these problems still exist. Why? Let’s get real about it.

Advertising is one of the most discriminatory industries in the United States, with studies showing it to be 40% more difficult for blacks to achieve success in this field than in general business. Based on Cadbury’s horrible legacy, the same might be true for England. There must be a correlation between this fact and the “lack of knowledge” blamed for recurrent racism in ads. Within the industry, and through the images it projects, advertisers’ lack of responsibility for racial ignorance creates real social and emotional problems blacks.

Naomi has a chance to use her fiery personality to fight a real enemy — this time becoming a warrior for advertising equality. I hope she leads the charge.

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