Seven years ago, when Barack Obama was first running for president, artist Hank Willis Thomas unveiled Unbranded:Reflections in Black by Corporate America, 1968–2008, a visual exploration of how the America sees and represents black culture through advertisements. What made the series so compelling was that he removed any text from the ads so the images spoke for themselves, and those images were powerful—and deeply disturbing.
Almost two presidential terms later, with Hillary Clinton’s campaign in full swing, the artist has decided to release another unflinching look at gender and race through the lens of wordless advertising. With Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915–2015, Thomas examines the role of white women in advertising through the decades—and, again, makes a statement about how political, corporate culture can be. By removing the words from the ads, he peels away the carefully crafted message that the creators want us to see, and reveals an unfiltered examination of sexism throughout modern history.
“As I started to think about what’s happening now leading up to the election, I thought a lot about the conversation surrounding Hillary Clinton, and the idea that we might have our first woman President, “ Thomas told W Magazine. “I wanted to look at how perceptions of women’s roles and ‘whiteness’ have changed over the last century.”
Through his examination of ads over the decades, he notes that as much as certain ideas about women have changed, they haven’t evolved nearly enough. This is particularly clear when text is removed from the ads and it’s hard to even tell which decade they’re from.
“I think what happens with ads — when we put text and logos on them, we do all the heavy lifting of making them make sense to us,” he told NPR’s Linda Wertheimer in a segment this past weekend. “But when you see the image naked, or unbranded, you start to really ask questions.”
“That’s why we can almost never tell what it’s actually an ad for, because ads really aren’t about the products,” he adds. “It’s about what myths and generalizations we can attach, and the repetition of imagery of a certain type.”
Thomas notes especially how violent some of the ads are, and also how some of them are downright ridiculous (women crossing the Delaware like George Washington in bikinis….? Come on.). Through the stripped down images, he addresses the themes of violence, sexualization, racism, and absurdity in the way the industry has treated and used women’s bodies.
I have to admit, I felt pretty concerned after looking through the ads in Thomas’ project— especially the ones that are so recent. It’s hard to be reminded of the inequalities we tend to overlook, and yet still, subconsciously absorb and accept. Thomas’ work is a sobering reminder that we need to be more conscious, not only of what we’re being sold, but how we’re being sold things.
Tying his imagery back to the election, we need to consider the role of equality, not just in the political arena but in the marketplace. How are women of all backgrounds being reflected, and how does that impact the way we perceive ourselves? The more we look critically at advertisements and recognize their impact on our society, the more we can thwart those messages that ultimately do more harm than good.
(Photo credits: Hank Willis Thomas via NPR, W Magazine)