“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
—W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
I wonder if the peculiar sensation W.E.B. Du Bois had in mind when writing The Souls of Black Folk is the same one I get when watching KGB’s latest ad. The directory assistance turned question-and-answer text service has me experiencing the 21st century version of double-consciousness—an American Negro woman, a consumer—two warring identities and one bad commercial break.
Case in point: “Extensions.” A KGB commercial featuring an all-black, female cast.
The commercial begins innocently enough with three black women sitting in a hair salon. One of the women is getting extensions sewn into her braids and ponders out loud about what type of hair her extensions are made of. “Natural,” her preoccupied hairdresser replies. Unsatisfied with that answer, she turns to her phone, seeking a better one from KGB—known in their commercials as the Knowledge Information Bureau. Send a simple query via text to 542-542, and then an answer is returned in short order.
“Where do natural extensions come from?” they ask.
The scene quickly changes to a distant farmland where two KGB agents find the source of the woman’s curious strands—a yak.
And back at the hair salon, suddenly, those silky extensions aren’t so appealing. “Oh no!” the woman asserts, “You better not be puttin’ no yak up in my weave!” There’s a hard-hitting bass in her tone, all attitude and emotion, the perfected pitch of black sass with a head bob for added emphasis.
Granted, this isn't the first time we've seen such a portrayal. The finger-snapping black diva has appeared almost everywhere in pop culture, on talk shows, TV sitcoms and even the occasional SNL skit. But when this worn-out personality gets a price tag attached to her head, things get complicated, insulting even.
Teetering on the offensive is nothing new to the KGB brand. Their other commercials have made use of crude and often sexist college humor to sell their service, everything from boob jokes to partial female nudity. Yet, this recent ad is the first to employ an all-black cast and, as far as I can tell, the only one to specifically target black female consumers. So why does this soft sell feel like a sucker punch?
Over the past few days, clips of the commercial have started to surface online, circulating on TheYBF, AdFreak.com and Racialicious. Twitter began buzzing with dismay last week as viewers parsed racism from stereotypes. Several tweets even called for a KGB boycott. But when commenting on a clip of the commercial that garnered 44,000 views, one YouTube user, sLiMjiMtHeJeRk, put it plain by asking the obvious: [It's] 2009, how do they still get away with sh** like this?
From that angle, it's always a slippery slope. The default images in black ads, especially those targeting black women, often conjure the same old disrespectful stereotypes and characterizations—loud, boisterous, hyper-sexualized and ignorant. A muddied view of our identity measured by, as Dubois poignantly put it, “a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
Sadly, KGB is not the only offender.
Earlier this year, Popeye's released a commercial starring "Annie," the self-proclaimed queen of chicken, who's down-home sensibilities and passion for poultry scream fowl play—pun intended. Even without the bandana and plump figure, Annie still comes off as a modern-day Mammy. Proof of how little respect and understanding marketing execs have for minority consumers.
American television has a long and storied tradition of using degrading portrayals to depict black women —even during commercial breaks. Five years before Popeye’s brought Mammy Annie to TV, McDonalds— no stranger to the coonery device—released a blatantly offensive commercial that was quickly pulled off the air. While recent spots produced by McDonalds have employed images of poetry-loving, cafe-au-lait-sipping blacks, this controversial 2004 commercial reached for some pseudo street cred to secure its stronghold on minority consumers. In the ad, a black woman devouring McNuggets on an airplane is nearly thwarted when a white flight attendant attempts to discard her meal. As he makes his move, the flight attendant receives a swift slap of the hand and a blunt warning from the chicken-loving passenger—"You better don't!"
Black women everywhere checked their collective colloquialism repertoires and came up empty. There was an absurdity to the commercial’s script that could only come from a boardroom or corporate office. It was a reflection not of how black American women behave but of how white America sees us: aggressive, uncouth and, apparently, in love with chicken.
It’s the same tarnished reflection that appears in the “Extensions” commercial. The same roll of the neck and snippy one-liner that resonates long after the ad is over.
But to hear the Brooklyn Brothers tell it, low-brow portrayals are never the goal. Their site manifesto explains the company’s efforts to ensure that consumers “can see clearly to the soul of the brand without having to stumble over the agency’s imagined wit and cleverness.”
Where exactly does the wack yak commercial fit into this concept? What clear view do black women have of KGB’s brand when we can barely see ourselves in focus?
For black American women, our two-ness is never more evident than when people are trying to sell us something. As advertisers vie for our attention, the incongruity of our two identities—who we are and who we are perceived to be—could not be more clear than in those 32 seconds.
Saaret E. Yoseph is assistant editor of The Root.
Saaret Yoseph is a writer and Assistant Editor at TheRoot.com. She manages and blogs for \"Their Eyes Were Watching …\"