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Erasing Type: Hank Willis Thomas on What Advertisements Are Really Saying

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Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008,” part of a new installation at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, is a project by artist Hank Willis Thomas. Appropriating ads that have targeted the black audience over the last 40 years, Thomas uses their images to explore identity, history and popular culture.

By “unbranding” photographs—digitally removing the logos and text—Thomas allows the viewer to view the image, now stripped of its sale pitch, to take hard look at the way the advertising industry—and society at large—uses photography to reinforce generalizations about race and gender.

In an interview with TIME, Thomas shared his inspiration, process and technique:

What inspired you to start working on this project?

The Unbranded project is a response to a project of mine called B®anded [In that project, Thomas took ad copy and superimposed it over photographs, for example taking MasterCard copy and pasting over a photograph of a funeral]. There I was thinking about how black bodies were branded as a sign of ownership during slavery, and how their descendants bodies are branded today through corporate advertising. Unbranded came about when I realized that I could say more by using real ads as a form of cultural critique.

What is interesting to you about that time period?

With the murder of Martin Luther King, 1968 became the symbolic end of the Civil Rights Movement. I wanted to track “blackness” in the corporate eye during this amazing period of progress, which is book-ended by the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the election of Barack Obama.

Can you tell us a bit about the provenance of the photographs you picked?

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.

What sorts of advertisements were you most drawn to?

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.

While selecting ads and seeing the recurrence of common threads in advertisements, what did you find most intriguing?

I saw a lot ads for cigarettes, alcohol and hair care products. And themes of romance, family, and seduction and humor were common in all. I find it most intriguing that most of the ads appear to have nothing to do with the product once they are unbranded.

To view more work by Hank Willis Thomas, visit hankwillisthomas.com and Jack Shainman Gallery

Things That Make You Go Hmmmmm?!! Year: 2000 Original Photographer: Unknown Original Ad: Nissan Cars "This was the first of the series because someone gave me this image and said I should do something with it. It became clear to me that truth is stranger than fiction and that by merely removing the text and logo from the advertisement you would never know this was an ad for a Japanese car." Hank Willis Thomas
Why wait another day to be adorable? Tell your beautician "Relax Me" Year: 1968 Original Photographer: Unknown Original Ad: Raveen Curl Relaxer Permanent "The title comes from the ad. It blatantly suggests that hair relaxer will make a woman more beautiful."Hank Willis Thomas
Slack Power Year: 1969 Original Ad: His Pants Original Photographer: Unknown "I thought that it was amazing appropriation of the black power movement by Madison Avenue."Hank Willis Thomas
We Are On Our Way Year: 1970 Original Photographer: Unknown Original Ad: Greyhound "There is something symbolic about the white and black people meeting at the front of the bus. The fact that this is published in 1970 shows an historic shift in approach to race. " Hank Willis Thomas
Who can say no to a gorgeous brunette? Year: 1970 Original Photographer: Unknown Original Ad: Clairol "When did black women become Brunettes?"Hank Willis Thomas
Pucker Up! Year: 1972 Original Photographer: Unknown Original Ad: Pall Mall Cigarettes "Remember when smoking was still a pastime filled with glee?"Hank Willis Thomas
Are you the right kind of woman for it? Year: 1974 Original Photographer: Unknown Original Ad: The Mistress Collection by Funky "It’s amazing that this is an ad for selling dresses to white women and it was unthinkable that this ad could have existed ten years beforehand."Hank Willis Thomas
Smokin’ Joe Ain’t J’mama Year: 1978 Original Photographer: Unknown Original Ad: Blue Bonnet Margarine "To see Joe Frazier depicted in this way is amazing. It is clearly a reference to the Aunt Jemima mammie caricature of black women. Curious to see the heavy weight champion depicted in that way." Hank Willis Thomas
Caramel Cocoa Butta’, Honey Lovah You’re Like No Otha’ Year: 1982 Original Photographer: Unknown Original Ad: Cocoa Butter "This ad is an early example of retouching. Half of her stomach has been cut out in order to sell skin lotion. " Hank Willis Thomas
The Refreshest Year: 1987 Original Photographer: Unknown Original Ad: Salem Cigarettes "Just look at it. Smoking cigarettes in front of fans for refreshment?"Hank Willis Thomas
Power is Nothing Without Control Year: 1994 Original Photographer: Annie Leibovitz Original Ad: Pirelli "Would love to hear what they were thinking on this one."Hank Willis Thomas
Gotten Year: 1996 Original Photographer: Annie Leibovitz Original Ad: Milk "The sexual undertones of this one are surprising. I noticed that Annie Leibovitz' depictions of black male athletes are often feminine in nature. I notice that in the Pirelli ad but also in the Blue Bonnet ad (not taken by her)"Hank Willis Thomas
Holy Boot! Year: 1998 Original Photographer: Unknown Original Ad: Candies "Lil' Kim, nuns and boots in one ad. This image is remarkable for so many reasons. "Hank Willis Thomas
Petey Wheat Straw: The Devil’s Son-In-Law Year: 2000 Original Photographer Unknown Original Ad: Altoids "This ad commodifies the pimp in order to sell mints." Hank Willis Thomas
Don't Let Them Catch You! Year: 2004 Original Photographer: Unknown Original Ad: Peace Corps "Though well-intentioned, this ad is centered around exoticism. My title imagines what the ancestors of these children would have had to do at the sight of Western invaders."Hank Willis Thomas
How to Market Kitty Litter to Black People: Found in Ebony Magazine Year: 2005 Original Photographer: Unknown Original Ad: Scoop Away Kitty Litter from Ebony Magazine. "Who would guess this is a kitty litter ad ? What kind of stereotypes come into play in this ad? Time Magazine had a different advertisement"Hank Willis Thomas
Membership has its Privileges Year: 2006 Original Photographer: Unknown Original Ad: Sean John "This image is a flipping of the script, a reversal of race roles from history. It’s supposed to be a paradigm shift but is it?" Hank Willis Thomas
Secure the Product (aka untitleable) Year: 2006 Original Photographer: Sacha Waldman Original Ad: G-Unit "This ad featuring 50 Cent was amazing because it suggests that packaging and selling clothes is like packaging and selling drugs. Possibly a fair argument, but I am surprised they went so far with his thug image. It clearly draws a connection to criminality and the making and selling of clothes. I'm also surprised nobody was offended."Hank Willis Thomas

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