African Americans Dramatically Underrepresented in Ad Industry

January 12, 2009

This article is included in these additional categories:

African-American | Agency Business

Racial discrimination affecting African Americans is 38% higher in the advertising industry than it is in the overall US labor market, and it is more pronounced now that it was 30 years ago, according to (pdf) a study from the Madison Avenue Project, a coalition of legal, civil rights and industry leaders.

The study, “Research Perspectives on Race and Employment in the Advertising Industry,” (pdf) conducted by research firm, Bendick and Egan Economic Consultants, found that African-American professionals in the ad industry face dramatic bias in pay, hiring, assignments and promotions. It also revealed that the “discrimination divide” between advertising and other US industries is more than twice as large now as it was in 1975.


Specific study findings:

  • Black college graduates working in advertising earn $0.80 for every dollar earned by their similarly qualified White counterparts.
  • Based on national demographic distribution data, 9.6% of advertising managers and professionals should be African-Americans. The actual percentage in 2008 is 5.3%, representing a difference of 7,200 executive-level jobs.


  • About 16% of large advertising firms employ no black managers or professionals, a rate 60% higher than in the overall labor market.
  • Black managers and professionals in the industry are only one-tenth as likely as their White counterparts to earn $100K per year.


  • Blacks are only 62% as likely as their White counterparts to work in the “creative” and “client contact” functions in advertising agencies.
  • Eliminating the industry’s current Black-White employment gap would require tripling its Black managers and professionals.

“Though employment discrimination has sharply diminished in America in the last 40 years, systemic barriers to equality in the $31-billion-a-year advertising industry have not budged,” the study stated.

The Madison Avenue Project, which is spearheaded by the NAACP and attorney Cyrus Mehri, of Mehri & Skalet, PLLC, also said the primary source of discrimination is agencies’ implicit assumption that the cause of Black under-representation is a shortage of ‘qualified’ Black job seekers, while in reality the problem is not a shortage but a “persistent unwillingness by mainstream advertising agencies to hire, assign, advance, and retain already-available Black talent.”

Moreover, Bendick and Egan found that the industry’s response to long-running charges of discrimination has consisted of “token efforts” and the industry’s primary response has been extremely modest expansions in training and entry-level hiring.

“At today’s rate of progress, Black numbers among advertising managers and professionals will not reach their expected level for another 71 years,” the research firm said.

An appropriate response, the study concluded, “will require fundamentally transforming the workplace culture of general market advertising agencies. Specifically, agencies must root out the stereotypes that make race, not ability, determine employment potential; halt the ‘buddy system,’ in which personal relationships and social comfort often count for more than job performance; and eliminate the assumptions that racial minorities can’t succeed in non-ethnic markets.”

“Today we are sending a message to the advertising industry: This conduct is unacceptable and must change,” said Mehri. “Madison Avenue has created and perpetuated a ‘separate and unequal’ marketing paradigm which is reflected in their advertising, their workforce and among their executive ranks. Even though our dollars provide the profits, the industry is still afraid of the dark.”

“The time has come to stand up to change this industry,” said Angela Ciccolo of the NAACP.

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