The American Heritage Dictionary defines whitewash as “Concealment or palliation of flaws or failures.” The Merriam Webster defines it as “to gloss over or cover up (as vices or crimes).” In both cases, the whiteness is covering (or washing over) flaws, failures, vices. The white is making things better, as when the paint coverage known as ‘whitewash’ is used to protect and beautify buildings/wood/furniture.
This usage of the term white as something that is good, something that is so powerful it can palliate flaws or conceal crimes, reveals the high esteem ‘white’ holds in the western cultural imagination. As a color it is seen as pure, clean, refreshing. When it refers to people, the same positive associations also apply. White people are seen as ‘purely human’ and not animalized or denigrated in the way people of color are. Or, as Chris Matthews would term it, white people are ‘regular people.’ These associations between whiteness and what is better/normal certainly are readily apparent in advertising.
Ads offer a ‘whitewashed’ message that conceals their true intent. They aim to make consumers forget they are viewing an ad. As such, they conceal their ultimate aim – profit. However, they also are ‘whitewashing’ in a different way–the ads are awash in white imagery and white actors to the point where people of color are rendered invisible, marginalized, or ‘glossed over.’ What such ads conceal is an underlying white supremacist narrative, a narrative that reiterates, again and again, the ideas that white is right, white is better, white is prettier and more healthy.
Yes, there are people of color in advertisements. Notice, though, how often poc are animalized in ads, are made to represent that which is not fully human, not good, not to be trusted, etc. And yes, this is getting somewhat better, but in no way is advertising getting anywhere close to anti-racist messages, let alone anti-sexist ones.
In fact, most advertisements convey white male supremacist messages. Whites are represented as the most beautiful and successul in ads, while men are represented as the dominant sex. In relation to male supremacy, ads convey that men are superior mainly via what is not shown — i.e. men are not shown near as often as women in ads as they are constructed as the purveyors of the gaze — hence Laura Mulvey’s arguments about the male gaze. When men are shown, they are usually represented as powerful, domineering, smart, and/or funny (and they are usually fully clothed). As for women, they are usually objectified — their ‘to be looked at-ness’ as Mulvey calls it, constructs them as objects to be ogled, desired, exploited, etc.
The Got Milk ad campaign is thus not unique in its problematic linkage of whiteness with perfection (or in its objectification of women). Its valorizaion of “the milk white look” consistently associates milk (white) consumption with goodness, health, and wealth. It’s “milk your diet” campaign associated the thin body with the good, healthy, white body. Its television commercials, although they feature more ‘everyday’ (re: non-celebrity) people than the milk moustache print ads, also suffer from whitewashing. In the commercials, (predominantly white) actors are flummoxed when they find themselves out of milk at inconvenient times. When the actors in the ads are not white, they are whitewashed so they can ‘pass.’
For example, some milk ads are especially targeted towards bi- or multi-cultural teens. One in particular, the La Llorona tv ad, was targeted towards Latino/a Americans. This ad, playing on a humorous rewrite of Mexican folklore, features La Llorona, who, according to legend, drowned her children after being betrayed by her husband.
Traditionally used as a cautionary tale for children, La Llorona is a familiar figure in Latino/a culture. In the commercial, the white clad ghost of La Llorona made her way through a darkened home as she wept eerily. In a humorous turn on this legend, she was not weeping over her lost children or her husband’s unfaithfulness, but rather, over the empty carton of milk she finds in the refrigerator. While the ad attempted to put a funny spin on a cautionary tale, it also worked to belittle Mexican cultural heritage while simultaneously upholding limiting stereotypes. By mocking the weeping and wailing of this cultural figure, the commercial overlooks the fact that La Llorona symbolizes hardship and suffering and often serves as a symbol of female resistance.[ii]
The tale was taken out of context in an act of cultural misappropriation, and viewers (unless they knew of the legend) probably didn’t even realize the ghostly figure was Latina. Thus, the commercial is able to target the Latino/a population without making non-Latino Americans conscious of this. Viewers unaware of the legend most likely interpreted the ad as a humorous ghost story. Tellingly, the ghost can ‘pass’ for white and she seems to haunt an upper middle class house most likely located in white suburbia. The ad thus plays to a Latino audience in one way and to the non-Latino audience in another.
By erasing the cultural context of the La Llorona legend, the commercial took what could have been a culturally aware narrative and dumbs it down, promoting the idea that it’s alright to be ‘ethnic’ in America as long as one’s ethnicity is invisible or hidden. Moreover, those viewers who realized the ghost was meant to be Latina were presented with a stereotypical portrait. Is it mere coincidence that a figure associated with infidelity, violence, and excessive emotion was the figure used to represent (and address) the Latino population of the US? Furthermore, what about the fact that the target audience of this ad, Latino teenagers, is largely lactose intolerant? Perhaps the ad is trying to convey the notion that if young Latino/a’s imbibe this curative white beverage, they can leave their ‘minority’ status behind.
This multi-million dollar Got Milk campaign was prompted by a decline in milk consumption that caused the dairy industry great concern — not because the industry worried about the health of the nation, but rather about waning profits. But, by promoting the ingestion of milk as a necessary, even life-changing practice, these ads also promote a limited idea of what it means to be a ‘proper American.’ To be an American, according to the commercials, one must be thin and attractive and eat ‘real’ American foods. And, if one’s color is not the pure whiteness of milk, one can at least imbibe some whiteness (and the superiority such whiteness is associated with) by partaking of this ‘wholesome’ beverage. (Ironically enough, the ads also play off the ‘wholesomeness’ of milk while simultaneously sexualizing the females used in the advertisements).
Currently, the majority of ads still trade in various “white is right” messages through the representation of white as the norm, as beautiful, as desirable. And, when a person of color is featured in ads, they are often cleaning (as in recent ads for Pledge) or diseased, as in various print ads touting the curative powers of pricey pharmaceuticals. On the other hand, when the message in ads plays on the beauty/desire/power/wealth of the person or people represented, guess what, the actor(s) are usually white. Even the Oprah magazine has ads that feature mainly white people. Thus, the ubiquitous whitewashed message still dominates. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem the advertising industry has made much progress colorwashing its narratives.
[ii] See, for example, Ana Maria Carbonell, “From Llorona to Gritona: Coatlicue In Feminist Tales by Viramontes and Cisneros,” Melus: The Journal of the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. 24, no.2, Summer (1999): 53-74.