The Racialized Strategy of Using Skin in Marketing and Consumer Culture

Written by Dr. Janet Borgerson and Dr. Jonathan Schroeder

Stock photos intended to show diversity sometimes end up emphasizing difference.
Sarah Pflug from Burst

A long-running promotional campaign, ‘Imagine having nothing to hide,’ from global cosmetic company Estée Lauder reveals a standard trope for ‘beauty’ marketing imagery — showing models of varying skin tones to demonstrate the brand’s appropriateness for ‘all’ consumers. One example states: ‘Proven gentle and effective for all ethnicities,’ Estée Lauder’s ‘fast-acting serum,’ promises to reduce ‘redness, acne marks, dark spots, and uneven skin tone.’ Generally, these images feature a white model, a black model (often light-skinned), and either an Asian or Hispanic model.

In one example, well-known models Joan Smalls, Constance Jablonski, and Liu Wen appear to stand in for their respective racial identities. Through fetishizing skin and invoking stereotyped notions of identity, the models appear to become their race.

These ads typically provide no other information about the models, other than skillfully produced photographs that emphasize their apparently smooth, unblemished skin, with ‘nothing to hide.’ These images invoke intersectional issues. This ‘quality’ of skin signals affluence and class typification. These celebrated models epitomize feminine gender ideals. Further, makeup often marks a prerequisite for attractiveness, heterosexuality, and youth — their glamorous skin shows no marks of age.

We do not intend to undermine potentially positive aspects of these ‘diversity’ images, celebrating ‘different’ skin tones. But some images apparently intended to celebrate such diversity often end up reinforcing racist notions of difference.

As forms of strategic communication, marketing, and advertising imagery often mobilize skin to resonate with consumers, often recirculating entrenched notions of race, identity, and digital miscegenation. The visual technologies that produce contemporary representations of the body, including images of skin, have expanded and transformed under the gaze of social media with its incessant demand for and pervasive circulation of novel images. Innovations in the visualization of skin that emerge from digital technologies — high-definition broadcasting, image manipulation software such as Photoshop, and increasingly sophisticated facial recognition algorithms — as well as artificial intelligence, have generated significant implications for the way skin works in consumers culture. Consumer culture denotes life in the midst of the processes of production and consumption, the practices of which are often bridged by marketing strategies, such as advertising.

Images circulating in consumer culture reflect understandings of skin color, race, and identity. Everyday photographic representations that show skin embody epistemological (knowing), ontological (being), as well as ethical, aspects of the relationship between skin and ideals of age, class, gender, and race, facilitating constructions of attractiveness, health, and sexuality.

Consumer culture surveils skin and body, seeking flaws and imperfections that need to be ‘corrected’ by marketed solutions such as ‘anti-aging’ products, Botox, skin lightening, and cosmetics.

Not surprisingly, then, skin in consumer culture imagery offers a powerful canvas on which to paint persuasive portraits of self, identity, and otherness. Skin is a key visual, tactile, and communicative feature of the body. How skin appears matters, as skin appears to speak to who we are. Skin contains and shares our humanity. Skin touching skin often implies aspects of human relationships. Pictures of skin serve as signals of desire and visual indicators of identity.

When looking at images of the body in consumer culture, including representations of skin, consumers are invited — and expected — to compare, contrast, and judge. Strategic communications draw upon the impulse to read skin in a way that encourages recognition of differences, hierarchies, and other clues to meaning-making.

Reading Skin in Consumer Culture

Consumer culture imagery in strategic communications mobilizes skin to resonate and communicate with consumers, which impacts the meaning-making possibilities of skin more broadly. For instance, skin provides an example of what is called ‘strategic fit’ in advertising. Fit refers to organizations harnessing the potential of various types of imagery to create positive identities for their brands. In other words, skin is called upon to do things.

In a contemporary consumer culture, racial categories and their assumed connections to skin color are persistently represented in a process of iteration — the constant repetition and circulation of images, increasingly via social media. Many images juxtapose racially coded skin — black and white and in-between — in a way that emphasizes perceiving racial identity based on a readable ‘scale’ of skin tone. Such apparent difference may appear in advertising images designed to address a variety of consumers, for example, by showing a ‘selection’ of racially coded models to demonstrate that a facial cream is suitable for ‘everyone,’ such as Shiseido’s spring 2021 “Synchro Skin Radiant Lifting” campaign. In other words, consumer products and experiences, as well as consumer culture imagery in marketing communications and branding campaigns, provide semiotic material, including skin, to be worked on and incorporated by consumers in the construction of their identities and related self-narratives.

Skin in photography

Photography itself offers a rich history of representing the body and remains an essential tool of contemporary strategic communication campaigns. Photographic film was developed with ‘white’ skin tones as the basis for accurate color reproduction and attempts to capture other skin tones lagged behind, which profoundly influenced the photographic representation of identity.

Moreover, the language of photography echoes the vocabulary of skin color: the use of ‘black and white’ to describe film and photographs that actually depend upon millions of tones between ‘pure’ black and ‘pure’ white reinforces a dichotomous conception of black and white. This terminology inscribes racial categories with technological markers in a process of racial fetishization.

The Commodification of Skin: Epidermal Schema, Miscegenation, and Fetishization

The epidermal schema and fetishization are key drivers that are strategically implemented in processes of skin commodification (making skin a saleable, scalable, hence hierarchically coded, commodity) that often reinforce sedimented notions of identity. Psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon’s conception of the epidermal schema helps to explicate the various ways that skin ‘appears’ in consumer culture imagery and sheds light on a host of intersecting identity concerns, such as gender and class. The epidermal schema works to reduce human beings and identity to skin, to focus attention on differences in skin color, to emphasize ontological distinctions signaled by differences in skin color, and to valorize whiteness.

Indeed, the commodification of skin has drawn upon a host of racist practices. Skin ‘color’ carries basic assumptions, for example, who certain people are and what is known about them — and thus entails racist forms of ontological and epistemological closures. Skin becomes a frozen definitive essence in a context of anti-black racism that privileges whiteness in the construction of which bodies and people are viewed as desirable. Thus, Blackness, far from a blank landscape, has philosophical status.

Fetishization, miscegenation, and the epidermal schema make represented skin work, offering meaning along a value-laden continuum, for example, relating to skin tone and the value of associated bodies and communities. Racist notions of identity that revolve around the epidermal schema underlie the discourse of miscegenation — the mixing of supposed separate races by ‘interracial’ dating, ‘intermarriage’ and ‘interbreeding’. The ‘mixing’ that occurs at the level of the epidermal schema suggests that skin color and skin tone serve as ‘evidence’ of miscegenation — reinforcing assumptions and stereotypes about bodies and communities.

Laws against miscegenation persisted in the United States up until the 1970s, and strictures about miscegenation linger on throughout the world. Racist objections to miscegenation center on ideas about racial ‘purity’ and the ‘unnatural’ prospect of one race breeding, or even ‘mingling’ with another. Racism avows that such miscegenation should not occur, and these beliefs form a fundamental aspect of racist attitudes. Rules about miscegenation place simple-minded conceptions of race at the heart of identity. From this perspective, different races represent different ontologies: they are different ‘things.’

The fetish rests at the heart of commodification. The fetish relationship — object worship, substituting human relations with fetish relations, delusional belief in the power of the fetish — influences the broader dimensions of consumer culture and its fascination with alluring objects, including objectified skin. Indeed, fetishization — the process of turning something into a fetish object — constitutes an important tool of strategic communication.

The fetish also refers to a broader cultural process of fetishizing objects via communicative technologies. For example, when used in promotional imagery, photographic techniques such as dramatic lighting, shallow focus, and digital manipulation, abstract and decontextualize skin. In this sense, fetishization and the epidermal schema materialize via photographic techniques that include close cropping, flash, and the creation of effects such as surface textures of shininess and smoothness.

A basic branding strategy involves imbuing consumer goods with fetish-like power, including liminal elements. The term liminal describes a space between, a gap, or an edge. Liminal zones often define spaces of uncertainty, creativity, danger, and passion. Skin is liminal in the way it exists between the inner body and the outside realm, forming a boundary between oneself and the world. Touching someone’s skin often indicates entering a liminal zone — signaling attraction, care, control, intimacy, sexuality, thoughtlessness, or threat, depending upon the context. Calvin Klein ads often feature crossed liminal zones — such as for their “genderless” CK Everyone fragrance, “a celebration for those unconstrained by boundaries, gender norms, and definitions.” Fetishized and mediated skin crosses liminal zones and embodies attraction and taboo, adding value to brands, products, and services in a market fueled by obtaining consumer attention.

Advertising provides fertile ground for assessing how consumer culture invokes, interrogates, and inflames charged cultural issues and ontological tensions. Representational fetishization in consumer culture contributes to a larger project of linking consumption with emotional satisfaction, physical gratification, and psychological fulfillment. What we need to see more is marketing communications that present human beings, not skin-covered objects that represent racialized identities.

Jonathan Schroeder writes about the intersections of branding, media, identity, and visual culture. He is the William A. Kern Professor in the School of Communication at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He received a BA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and an MA and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. He has lived and worked in the US, Sweden, and the UK. He has published in a broad array of journals, including AfterImage, Body & Society, Consumption Markets & Culture, and InVisible Culture. His books include Visual Consumption (Routledge, 2002), the Routledge Companion to Visual Organization (2013; co-editor), Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America (MIT Press, 2017; co-author), and Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance (MIT Press, 2021; co-author). He is a board member of the Race in the Marketplace Forum.

Janet Borgerson (BA philosophy, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; MA Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, England; PhD philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison) completed postdoctoral work at Brown University in philosophy, gender, and religious studies. She has held tenured positions at the University of Stockholm, Sweden, and the University of Exeter, UK, and served as visiting professor at Shanghai University of International Business and Economics and at Walailak University, Thailand. She is an advisory board member of the Race in the Marketplace Research Forum and a former trustee of the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. Borgerson is the author of Caring and Power in Female Leadership: A Philosophical Approach (2018) and co-author of From Chinese Brand Culture to Global Brands: Insights from Aesthetics, Fashion, and History (2013). Her scholarly articles appear in a broad range of journals, including Body and Society, Business and Society Review, and Philosophy Today.

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