The Brooklyn Museum features the long-term exhibition, Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008, a collection of advertising images that target a black audience, but have been digitally altered and appropriated by artist Hank Willis Thomas. Each of the ads were found in popular magazines from the late 60s to present day yet all logos, headlines and copy have been removed in an attempt to challenge the viewer’s response and understanding of cultural identity. Untethered from their primary function of selling products, even the most familiar of these images invites new meanings as eyes are forced to look deeper at a photograph sans marketing jargon, drawing into question how the advertising industry (and popular culture) augment stereotypes about race and gender. What are these ads actually saying to their intended target audience?
In a recent interview with TIME, Hank Willis Thomas shares some insight, addressing why he selected the particular images in his series. He responded with:
“Most of the people making decisions in advertising then, and now, are white males. I was interested in how white male interpretations of ‘black’ identity shaped aspects of African-American lives. The photographers of most of these images are unknown. I feel its integral to understand that these images are essentially created by our society, and that I did not contribute to, nor claim any authorship, of them.”
Each viewer will likely have his or her own perspective, but Hank Willis Thomas has crafted a way to get his message across. With the removal of the original text from the ads he has also added his own in the form of provocative titles. Take for instance the above image, a Scoop Away cat litter ad appearing in a 2005 copy of Ebony magazine has been renamed: “How to Market Kitty Litter to Black People: Found in Ebony Magazine.”
When asked which advertisements he was most drawn to, the artist said:
“I chose two ads for every year, trying to find as broad a range of ads as possible from films, foods, clothing, cigarettes and alcohol. What I’m most interested in these ads is not only how other people see black Americans, but also how we see ourselves. Part of advertising’s success is based on its ability to reinforce generalizations developed around race, gender and ethnicity which are generally false, but [these generalizations] can sometimes be entertaining, sometimes true, and sometimes horrifying.”