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Skin tone as the signifier of race: the effect of consumer ethnic identity on targeted marketing.


In spite of the fact that images and portrayals of African Americans have been extensively studied in advertising research, the common variable in those studies has been race without accounting for variance that may result from skin tone differences within race (Bailey 2006; Cox 1970; Dominick and Greenberg 1970; Kassarjian 1969; Shuey, King, and Griffith 1953; Taylor and Lee 1995). As minority spending power and social interactions of different racial groups in America have increased over time, advertisers have increasingly been concerned with reaching minority ethnic groups through visual inclusion. With minority purchasing power increasing (Selig 2010), research in this area is more important than ever before. However, many companies were initially leery of offending the White majority that was their consumer base (Surlin 1977). In a 1953 study (Shuey, King, and Griffith), only 0.6% of ads contained African Americans. By 1980 (Humphrey and Schuman 1984), that frequency had increased to approximately 5.7%, indicating that the country was becoming more comfortable with the use of Blacks in advertisements. Researchers took interest in this phenomenon of using ethnic faces in ads and desired to gain greater insight into both how Blacks in ads were received and the roles that they played in these ads. The studies illuminated the potential impact and effectiveness of these portrayals. However, in these studies, skin tone was rarely addressed.

In other fields, such a psychology and sociology, skin tone as a factor of race and racial identity has been examined. Skin tone, defined as the color of a person's skin, has been acknowledged as a specific variable at the root of racially related issues. It has been correlated with feelings of self worth, attractiveness, self control, satisfaction, and with quality of life (Keith and Thompson 2003; Bond and Cash 1992; Boyd-Franklin 1991; Cash and Duncan 1984; Chambers, et al 1994; Okazawa-Rey, Robinson, and Ward 1987). The study of skin tone has also led to a focus on colorism, which is the process of discrimination that gives privilege to people of a lighter-skin tone over their dark-skinned counterparts (Hunter 2005). In general, African American's tend to feel more favorable towards Black models with lighter a skin tone (Meyers 2008).This phenomenon is not exclusive to African Americans because colorism is concerned with actual skin tone, as opposed to racial or ethnic identity. Research done by Shyon Baumann (2008) has shown that people within our culture, regardless of race, have a set of ideals about how people should ideally look, including judgments regarding skin color. Lightness and darkness of skin tone have specific meanings attached to them and we subconsciously relate those meanings to those we encounter. This construct of race has yet to be examined by advertising literature.

Black consumers, generally, feel positively towards seeing black model in advertisements and strong ethnic identifiers feel more positively towards a model who looks more like themselves (Green 1999). The research on ethnic identity indicates that one's level of ethnic identity may dictate his/her preference for and judgments about their group (Phinney 1992). In terms of skin color, this stream of research suggests that Blacks who identify strongly with their ethnicity will feel more positively towards darker models than will Blacks who identify less with their ethnicity. This study will test the linkage between Black consumers and how that consumer's ethnic identification effects the reception of advertisements featuring Black models of different skin tones in a marketing context. The findings from this study will help marketers to further understand the dynamics present when targeting Black consumers with ads featuring Black models.


In the marketing communications field, there has been a lengthy stream of research regarding the depictions of African Americans in advertising and other forms of marketing communications (Bailey 2006; Cox 1970; Dominick and Greenberg 1970; Kassarjian 1969; Shuey, King, and Griffith 1953; Taylor and Lee 1995). The number of African Americans seen in advertisements, although slightly under the percentage of Whites, has been steadily increasing (Taylor and Lee 1995; Mastro and Stern 2003). The changing beauty standards of advertisement models can be attributed to the shifting demographics, values of American society, as well as the increased expectations of American consumers being presented with relatable images (Williams, Qualls, and Grier 1995). Between 2010 and 2015, African-American buying power in the United States is expected to increase 25 percent, rising from $957 billion to $1.2 trillion (Selig 2010). Comprising 12.9% of the American population (Census 2000), this is a market that is important to businesses that hope to capture expenditure dollars of American consumers. As minority buying power grows, so too will the need for advertising that speaks directly to consumers of varying ethnicities.

At the onset of the trend towards using ethnic models, one of the biggest fears faced by marketers was whether appeasing the minority consumers by featuring ethnically diverse models would alienate the White majority audience. Advertising executives were concerned that using minorities in commercials would keep White consumers from connecting with ads featuring Black models instead of the status quo White model (Green 1999). The effect of targeted messaging on the unintended groups has also been researched in order to provide insight into resulting attitude formation (Aaker, Brumbraugh, and Grier 2000). Most researchers have found that White consumers do not react negatively to Black models in ads (Barban & Cundiff 1964; Barban 1969; Guest 1970; Block 1972; Schlinger & Plummer 1972; Bush, Gwinner, & Solomon 1974; Choudhury & Schmid 1974; Solomon, Bush, and Hair 1974; Szybillo & Jacoby 1974; Whittler 1991). Using ethnic models would seem to be a positive option, since the general audience would not reject these ads. And as a bonus to retailers targeting the African American market, Black consumers tend to have higher recall of ads featuring Black models (Whittler 1991).

With this understanding of the positive effect of Blacks viewing ads featuring Black models, the primary concern of this study will be to examine the role that the skin tone, an under-examined variable of race, of Black models in American advertisements targeting African American consumers has on a few key marketing communication goals, specifically taking note of the consumer's level of ethnic identity. The marketing communication goals measured in this study are attitude towards the ad, attitude towards the product, attitude towards the model and purchase intent. The mediating factor that will be used to categorize the Black consumer in this study will be their reported level of ethnic identification.

Ethnic identity is the way a person sees themselves as a member of a group that is a subset of the larger society. A person's ethnic identity is important because it dictates point of view and is likely to play an important role in how received information is processed (Green 1999). This also translates to consumer based decisions. Researchers have previously made the connection between ethnic identification and consumer marketplace behavior (Desphande, Hoyer, and Donthu 1986; Donthu and Cherian 1992; Hirschman 1981; Webster 1994). And it has been stated that a consumer's level of ethnic identification may have a significant effect on their evaluation of an advertisement (Cui 1997).

Within an ethnic group, however, there will be varying levels of this identification. In a study done by Corliss Green (1999), African-Americans were examined as a heterogeneous group taking into consideration that their evaluation of ads may be influenced by their level of ethnic identification. It was found in this study that strong ethnic identifiers do feel more positively toward ads that feature Black models while weak identifiers feel more positively toward ads that featured White models. According to this researcher, the rationale for these findings is based upon whether the Black consumer identified more closely with their ethnic identity or identified more closely with the dominant American culture.

Ethnic identity is the aspect of a person's self concept that is centered on their knowledge of membership in an ethnically based social group together with the significance attached to that membership (Tajfel 1981). Minorities tend to feel particularly attached to their ethnic identity due to the fact that race and ethnicity are highly salient to these groups and highly evident to others. However, as the number of minorities in the United States increases, the majority is in turn becoming a minority. This situation may lead to the issue of ethnic identity becoming a salient issue for both the minority groups as well as the current White majority (Phinney 1992).

Given this framework, it seems reasonable to assume that this variable, ethnic identity, has the ability to affect the reception of advertisements that feature African American models. With this in mind, the following hypothesis addresses the framework of ethnic identity as potential mediating factor of the study's outcome when singling out Black participants.

Hypothesis 1: Black study participants that are strong in ethnic identification will feel more positively towards a model with "dark" skin tone than those Black study participants that are weak in ethnic identification.

In terms of the resulting affect on consumer reception, the second hypothesis addresses the effect that skin tone plays on the response to targeted advertisements by a Black audience.

Hypothesis 2: Based upon the skin tone of the model seen in the ad, Blacks will respond more positively to the model with "light" skin tone on the measures of attitude towards the ad, attitude towards the product, attitude towards the model, and purchase intent.


The execution of this study was in the form of an online survey. This format was ideal to meet the needs of this study because the self reported data allowed for insight into the mind of the consumers.

Skin tone served as the main independent variable of interest in this analysis. This variable is examined as a more direct factor of race and racially based issues in advertising. Given the subjective nature of analyzing skin tone, the measurements of skin tone were given as the bi-polar adjectives of "light" and "dark." Narrowing the adjectives to two options was in hopes of avoiding a catch-all compartment of "medium" as the skin tone classification.

The four major dependent variables involved in this study are attitude toward the ad, attitude toward the product, attitude toward the model, and purchase intention. These outcome measures are of great importance to marketers due to their indication of consumer acceptance of the message. Since advertising is a paid for method of mass mediation, understanding these outcome variables also validates the money used for product and brand communication efforts.

To operationalize and access the dependent variable, three advertisements were shown to the participants. One of these ads served as the study stimulus and the other two served as foils or "dummy ads" to help disguise the purpose of the study. The stimulus ad featured one of two models, a "light" and a "dark" version of the same African American female whose skin tone has been digitally manipulated.

The first section of the survey asked respondents questions related to the participants attitude towards the ad. This section featured a scale that is made up of a number of bi-polar adjectives that are geared at measuring the affective component of the subjects' attitude. The second section asked respondents about their attitude towards the product. The format of this section was a seven item, bi-polar statement scale to measure the consumer's evaluation of the product. The third section asked respondents about their attitude towards the model. Since the two dummy ads did not feature models, the questions were manipulated to fit the ad presented. The fourth section asked questions related to purchase intent based upon the ad. Tested and approved marketing scales were use. The ones selected were recommended for the determination of attitude towards the ad, the product, the model, and purchase intent by the American Marketing Association Marketing Scales publication (Bruner, Hensel, and James 2005). The fifth section examined the ethnic identity of the respondent using the Multigroup Ethnic Identity Measure Scale (Phinney 1992). The final section asked for general demographic information from the respondents such as age, gender, ethnicity and school.

In order to measure the major construct of ethnic identity, a subscale of the Multigroup Ethnic Identity Measure Scale (Phinney 1992) was employed. The MEIM scale addresses the general aspects of ethnic identity by focusing on components that are common across all ethnic groups: self identification as a group member, a sense of belonging, behaviors unique to that group, and a feeling of pride due to group achievement (Phinney 1990). Three subscales were developed to address these components.

The subscale of the MEIM scale called "Affirmation and Belonging" focuses on the key aspect of ethnic identity that has been included in most previous studies in the area which is the feeling of belonging to an ethnic group and the feelings that a group member has towards that group (Phinney 1992). Statements like "I am happy that I am a member of the group I belong to" are presented to the respondent and they are asked whether they agree or disagree on a four point differential. This subscale is a five question scale that has a reported reliability of 0.86 (Phinney 1992). This is the scale that was employed in this study. Please see Appendix A: Study Questionnaire for full survey used in this study.

The participant recruitment goal of this study was approximately 480 subjects: 240 from a student sample at a large southwestern state university and the other 240 from a student sample at a small historically black university in the same southwestern city. The goal was to have two samples that will be rich in both the number of White and Black subjects. Since both schools lack diversity in terms of those two races, both subject pools were investigated to make up for this shortfall. In this study, only the African American participants' responses are examined.


To examine the results of this study in relation to the Hypothesis 1, strong ethnic identity was operationalized as an ethnic identity score that falls above the mean for Black participants (mean =3.715). There was an interesting interaction found when examining whether Blacks that are stong in ethnic identity (mean above 3.715) present a more positive attitude towards the dark model than Blacks that are weak in ethnic identity (below 3.715). There were 157 Black participants in this study, of which only 48 qualified as having weak ethnic identity. Of these participants, 106 saw the "light" ad and 99 saw the "dark" ad. In Figure 1: Graph of Interaction between Skin Tone and Ethnic Identity shown below, you can see the clear distinction between attitudes towards the model based upon the level of ethnic identification. Those respondents that were high in ethnic identification felt fairly similar about the model regardless of skin tone. Those respondents that were low in ethnic identification felt despairingly different about the model based on skin tone. In this case, there was a clear preference for the model with lighter skin tone over the model with darker skin tone.


When an ANOVA was conducted to determine whether there is a significant interaction between the skin tone of the model, the ethnic identity of the Black participants and the resulting attitude towards the model, significance was found in the interaction effects of these variables. The outcome of the test indicates that a significant difference exists between skin tone and attitude towards the model [F (1,201) = 6.469, p= 0.012]. The outcome of the test also indicates that a significant difference exists between ethnic identity and attitude towards the model [F (1,201) = 6.003, p= 0.015]. The interaction effect found in these factors shows that there is a connection between ethnic identity and the skin tone of a black model and their effect on a consumer's attitude towards the model [F (1,201) = 9.237, p= 0. 003]. Since a statistically significant interaction was found, it can be stated that Black study participants that were stronger in ethnic identification felt more positively towards the model with "dark" skin tone than those Black study participants that were weak in ethnic identification. These finding provides evidence supporting the Hypothesis 1.

Based upon the skin tone of the model seen in the ad, significant main effects were found when examining the interaction between the ethnicity of the respondent and the skin tone of the model and this interaction's affect on all four of the dependent variables: attitude towards the ad, attitude towards the product, attitude towards the model, and purchase intent. In other words, attitude towards the ad [F(1,447) = 3.556, p= 0.002], attitude towards the product [F(1,447) = 8.535, p< 0.000], attitude towards the model [F(1,447) = 7.793, p< 0.000], and purchase intent [F(1,447) = 5.609, p< 0.000] are all affected by both the consumer's self reported ethnicity and the skin tone of the Black model in the ad. Therefore, hypothesis 2 is supported by these findings. Please see Table 1 for a summation of the hypotheses and findings.


Although this study solely examined the African American population, this issue of colorism and its effect on consumer behavior can be seen around the world. Skin lightening is a multi-billion dollar business that serves millions of people around the world annually (Hunter 2007). Consumers are going to extremes to lighten their skin color with methods that include laser treatments, bleaching, skin creams, and chemical peels, many of which are hazardous to the health and utilize dangerous ingredients such as mercury and hydroquinone. This industry is thriving even with the potential risk associated with the procedures. In Southeast Asia, light skin tone is associated with economic status. In Africa and Latin America, it is associated with social status. Regardless of the motivation, globally, there seems to be a pronounced preference for lighter skin tone. This study helps to shine light on the preference of consumers towards images of the ideal self, highlights the need for moralistic evaluation of advertising efforts by companies in order to be maintain corporate responsibility, and provides a real case example of this phenomenon in the African American market.

By no means does this research suggest that Black models used in advertisements should all be of a lighter skin tone. All of the Black respondents felt favorably towards the Black model regardless of her skin color. More accurately, this research points to a social bias towards darker skin tones that should not be perpetuated by media. Blacks feel favorably towards Black models, but the preference is towards the lighter skinned models with the moderating factor of ethnic identity closing the gap between preferences in skin tone. Companies should help promote diversity and social growth by featuring Black models in targeted advertising of a multitude of skin tones. Instead of continuing the current trend of using more ethnically ambiguous models (La Ferla, 2003), companies would be both successful in their advertising outcomes by utilizing Black models of varied skin color and also socially responsible in their attempt to showcase the array of Black skin tones.

The findings from this particular study provide interesting insight to marketers who are targeting African Americans. Although there has been an increase in the use of ethnically ambiguous models in recent advertising strategy (La Ferla, 2003), when specifically targeting the African American market in racially defined media, this new creative mandate may not be necessary. For example, it can be inferred that most of the African American readership of Ebony Magazine has a defined identification for their ethnicity. According to the hypothesis of this study, the use of darker skinned Black models would be more positively received by these readers than African Americans who are not as highly identified. In summation, targeted marketing featuring Black models of darker skin tone will be seen as favorable by the intended audience.

Globally, it would be ideal for companies to remain cognizant of the theory that consumers tend to favor advertisements that feature models who look like them. Although it is easier to appeal to the consumer's ideal self, companies should display corporate responsibility by working to avoid perpetuation of images that potentially affect the consumer negatively. Media imagery should reflect society. That means that beauty should not be mandated by one image of color, size, or any other attribute that is an impossible standard for the audience. And according to this study, companies can still be effective in their marketing effort, especially when using targeted marketing, where the audience is in touch with their targeted identity.


One of the most apparent limitations of this study comes from the creation of the stimuli. There are inherent issues that arise when attempting to digitally manipulate the skin tone of a person in an image. First, from a mechanical viewpoint, software used to alter the colors in an image has difficulty automatically adjust for the subtle nuances that occur in the natural skin tone of a Black person. All of the many pixels that make up the skin of a model in an image vary in color. Adjusting for desired color and accounting for lighting reflecting from the skin is complicated and often will not appear as natural as a non-manipulated image.

There are also facial phenotypes that often go along with certain skin tones. In Blacks, darker skin is often associated with larger and wider features, while lighter skin is more often associated with smaller, narrower features. With the skin tone alteration of a Black person in an image, there is the risk of "creating" a person that looks unnatural. While developing the stimuli of this study, it was a conscious decision not to make the "light" model extremely light or the "dark" model extremely dark in order to account for her physical features seeming unmatched to her color. This limitation appears to have played a major role in this study as the manipulation check show the model's being fairly close in skin tone ratings. This translates into the subjects feeling that the model was neither extremely "light" nor extremely "dark" in color.

In order to avoid a catch-all category of color classification, two extremes, "light" and "dark" were used to represent disparity in Black skin tone. Given the wide spectrum of colors that ethnically Black individuals come in, this possible limitation was considered prior to the start of the study. After consideration, this decision was deemed less of a limitation and more of a necessity in order to make generalizations about color disparity.

Also, this study solely examined the effects of the given variables under the constraints of one model, of one gender. Although there is research that states skin tone is not as critical of an attribute for men in terms of attractiveness, this may or may not translate to a male model's role as an endorser of a product. For instance, the negative stereotypes associated with darker skinned, Black males may transfer into how the average consumer views a dark skinned, Black male model as an endorser of a product.


In closing, this stream of research has the ability to fuel research initiatives on the effect skin tone plays in the reception of advertisements. There is more work, however, that needs to be done to fully understand the effect this variable has as a circumscriber of race. In this particular study, it was shown that ethnic identification has a significant effect on how an African American consumer feels about a Black model in an advertisement based on that model's skin tone. This in turn can effect how this consumer responds to targeted marketing effort. As a starting point, this provides the basis for future research regarding how the visual element of target marketing can be manipulated to meet the ultimate preferences of the audience.

Turning attention towards future research, when targeting African Americans, another interesting variable that would add to the knowledge of the role that skin tone plays in the reception of an ad featuring a Black model is the skin tone of the Black consumer. This would be a difficult variable to identify given that skin tone is subjective. It would require determining whether that variable should be self reported or recorded by an interviewer. Both of these methods of data collections would be subject to scrutiny. The reliability of that self report would be questionable because there is no way to validate that the self report of all of the participants was accurate. On the other hand, with trained interviewers taking note of the subjects' skin tones, a scale of color must be identified and agreed upon. Color classification is not the same for everyone; it is affected by culture and language (Franklin et al, 2008). With color being severely subjective, it may be difficult to get consensus on the description applied to each subject.

Future research in this stream should also extend to other cultural groups. The phenomenon of skin tone bias has been reported in other ethnic groups (Herring 2003). In America, Hispanics and Asian ethnic groups would benefit from a replication of this study. As discussed globally, people of color around the globe and their reception of ads based up the models skin town should also be analyzed. Using models from other ethnicities could help to determine how consumers, both within and outside of their group, respond to the spectrum of color that may be represented as a targeted endorser from that group. Consumer Behaviorists should strive to fully understand the affect that we as marketers have on consumers and how our targeted efforts are in turn received based upon the variable of skin tone.



What is your age?

What is your gender?

What school do you attend?

Attitude towards the Ad

I dislike the ad / I like the ad

I react unfavorably to the ad / I react favorably to the ad

I feel negative toward the ad / I feel positive toward the ad

This ad is bad / This ad is good

Attitude towards the Product

This is a bad product / This is a good product

I dislike the product / I like the product

I feel negative toward the product / I feel positive toward the product

This product is awful / This product is nice

This product is unpleasant / This product is pleasant

This product is unattractive / This product is attractive

I approve of this product / I disapprove of this product

Attitude towards the Model

Relative to other female models seen in advertising, this model's beauty makes her

Much less noticeable

Much more noticeable

Compared to other female models I normally see in advertisements, this model's beauty is

Far below average

Far above average

This model's superior beauty would stand out among other models in a magazine

Strongly disagree

Strongly agree

Questions to replace Ad towards Model in dummy ads

Relative to other (scenic) images seen in advertising, this scenic image is

Much less noticeable

Much more noticeable

Compared to other (scenic) images I normally see in advertisements, this scenic image is

Far below average

Far above average

This (scenic) image's superior beauty would stand out among other (scenic) images in a magazine

Strongly disagree

Strongly agree

Purchase Intent

Would you like to try this product?



Would you buy this product if you happened to see it in a store?



Would you actively seek out this product in a store to purchase it?



Ethnic Identity

1 = Strongly disagree 2 = Somewhat disagree 3 = Somewhat agree 4 = Strongly agree

I am happy that I am a member of the group I belong to.

I have a strong sense of belonging to my own ethnic group.

I have a lot of pride in my ethnic group and its accomplishments.

I feel a strong attachment towards my own ethnic group.

I feel good about my culture or ethnic background.

My ethnicity is

Asian or Asian American

Black or African American

Hispanic or Latino

White, Caucasian, European, not Hispanic

American Indian

Mixed; parents are from two different groups


My father's ethnicity is (use numbers above)

My mother's ethnicity is (use numbers above)


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Table 1: Summary of Hypotheses and Findings

 Hypotheses              Findings                 Supported by Study

Hypothesis 1:   Black study participants      Yes. The interaction
                that are strong in ethnic     effect found in these
                identification will feel      factors shows that there
                more positively towards a     is a connection between
                model with "dark" skin tone   ethnic identity and the
                than those Black study        skin tone of a black
                participants that are weak    model and their effect
                in ethnic identification.     on a consumer's attitude
                                              towards the model

                                                [F (1,201) = 9.237,
                                                p = 0. 003]

Hypothesis 2:   Based upon the skin tone of   Yes. Significant main
                the model seen in the ad,     effects were found when
                Blacks will respond more      examining the interaction
                positively to the model       between the ethnicity of
                with "light" skin tone on     the respondent and the
                the measures of attitude      skin tone of the model
                towards the ad, attitude      and this interaction's
                towards the product,          affect on all four of
                attitude towards the model,   the dependent variables
                and purchase intent.          Attitude towards ad
                                                [F(1,447) = 3.556,
                                                p= 0.002]
                                              Attitude towards product
                                                [F(1,447) = 8.535,
                                                p< 0.000]
                                              Attitude towards model
                                                [F(1,447) = 7.793,
                                                p< 0.000]
                                              Purchase intent
                                                [F(1,447) = 5.609,
                                                p< 0.000]
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Author:Meyers, Yuvay Jeanine
Publication:Academy of Marketing Studies Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2011
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