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What Is ‘Blackfishing’ And How Can Brands Be Aware Of It In Influencer Advertising?

What Is ‘Blackfishing’ And How Can Brands Be Aware Of It In Influencer Advertising?

There has been increasing controversy over the trend of ‘blackfishing’ in influencer advertising and with celebrities. But what does this term mean, and how might brands be at risk of offending black consumers?

‘Blackfishing’ is a term that refers to celebrities or influencers who deliberately adopt hairstyles that are traditionally associated with black people or culturally appropriate black fashion, to make themselves appear as though they are actually black themselves.

Examining Recent Examples

Some black consumers have called out ethnically ambiguous celebrities on social media, accusing them of seeking to mislead fans into thinking that they are black or mixed race. This is putting brands at risk of being culturally insensitive by working with celebrities or influencers that are doing this.

One recent example was pointed out when people began to question the ethnicity of singer Rita Ora. Despite her having Albanian parents, many fans assumed that the singer was mixed race, due to her darker shade of skin and her posts online that showed her wearing traditionally black hairstyles, such as braids. Although she has been very open about her ethnicity, it raised concerns about how consumers could be misled when it comes to information about a celebrity’s race.

More recently, the Tik Tok influencer Addison Rae, who has over 30 million followers on the platform was accused of blackfishing, after posting a video of her in makeup that significantly darkened her skin. As she is from a white background, this angered some users on the social media platform who claimed that she was trying to create ambiguity around her race, which could allow her to adopt black fashion and styles without being accused of cultural appropriation.

Similarly, in 2018, a Twitter thread called out a number of Instagram influencers that wore darker makeup shades and wore clothing and hairstyles associated with black culture and black people.

Are Brands At Risk?

One of the recurring themes around blackfishing is the perceived ambivalence by brands and publishers to prevent it from happening. In April, US magazine ‘The Interview’ held a cover shoot with the Hispanic singer Selena Gomez, where she appeared to look much darker than usual and had a braid hairstyle with ‘baby hairs’; a style of hair combing common amongst black people. Although some were critical of the singer, others pointed out how the magazine was also at fault, as they were responsible for overseeing the creative fashion choices of the shoot.

Writer Stephanie Yeboah has spoken in an interview of how brands could be complicit in this worrying trend. “What we are seeing, especially on social media, is another way of white women co-opting, profiting and benefiting from appropriating another race and brands are encouraging this,” she said. “A lot of these women receive endorsements from beauty and fashion brands based on the ‘black aesthetic’ but unfortunately, when it comes to using real black women for campaigns, we are often sidelined and forgotten about”.

Steps that Brands Can Take

A recent survey found that 92% of professionals in the PR industry are white, which could result in poorer representation for black influencers. Eric Toda, the former marketing executive at Gap, Airbnb, Nike and Snapchat spoke about this issue:

“It’s no secret that marketing is a predominantly white industry, so naturally there are marketers who choose influencers who look like them… we need to put values-driven messages out there, show real-life versus a sterilised mirage and instill purpose. You can achieve this by partnering with influencers that represent different stories, races, socio-economic backgrounds etc.”

If brands are looking to authentically appeal to black consumers in a culturally sensitive way, using black influencers is a great first step. Beauty, fashion and lifestyle influencer Alexus Crown spoke about the importance of working with a diverse range of influencers. “It is extremely disheartening to see brands do everything ‘black’ except hire black creators. Brands will use inspiration from black culture, historic hairstyles, lingo, style and even hire models who ‘blackfish’ before hiring a black influencer.” she said.

Most brands are aware of the harm that being found guilty of cultural appropriation can cause, with blackfishing being a form of that. Ultimately, brands could reduce the risk of being culturally insensitive towards black consumers by having a diverse creative team and working with black influencers. This could help to ensure that a brand isn’t at risk of participating in blackfishing and is creating content that will appeal to black consumers in an authentic and culturally sensitive way.


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