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Benedicta Arthur

CAS 238
Essay 2
Rhetoric as ideology: How do advertisements for hair and
cosmetic products communicate a message about ethnicity?

The idea of rhetoric as ideological is one that is instrumental in


our lives today. As Plato put it, Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds
of men. Even though his statement still causes a high level of
controversy today among scholars of rhetoric, one can consider the
fact that maybe Plato has a point. Whether intentional or not, rhetoric
does have the tendency, and many may argue, actually does rule our
minds. The way in which we perceive things and the way in which we
understand things as humans are fundamentally based off of how they
are presented in rhetoric. In this paper, the idea of rhetorical as
ideological

will

be explored

by

evaluating

advertisements;

but

specifically, advertisements for hair and cosmetics that communicate


messages about ethnicity in the African/ African-American community.
For this essay, I analyzed the following advertisements:

Benedicta Arthur
CAS 238
Essay 2

When it comes to African/ African-Americans, the standards of beauty


are just as emphasized, although slightly different. Advertisements
mostly convey the echoing message that African/African-American

Benedicta Arthur
CAS 238
Essay 2
women need to have straight hair. Two of the ads say, Relax your hair
and set it free! and relaxed hair is straight and sexy really convey
how African/African-American women need to wear their hair, as an
instance

of

hegemony,

because

these

women

see

these

ads

everywhere and everyday. Psychological studies have shown that


differences in individuals make a difference in terms of the extent of
media effects. (Skin tone and hair in black magazines, 2002) Slowly,
the concept of having straight hair forms an ideology that having ones
own natural hair is not a sufficient measure of beauty anymore. One of
the ads above reads: Nicer things happen with clearer, nicer skin.
White argues in her article that: While the politics of hair parallels the
politics of skin colour in the African American community, it should be
understood that both are a product of cultural hegemony and white
supremacy that originated in slavery. While this social hierarchy has
affected both African American men and women, it has had a more
detrimental effect on women. (White, 2005) It almost seems like
society is conveying an ideology that, Caucasian beauty will always be
the best form of beauty, and so the closer African/African-American
women can get to that, the more beautiful and even successful they
become.
It is very interesting to note that the ways in which these ideas
become rhetorical also depends on the rewards or punishments that

Benedicta Arthur
CAS 238
Essay 2
come with adopting/discarding that ideology. In one of the ads that
were studied, there was a promotion going on for ladies that had
relaxed hair (or who bought products for relaxed hair) were given free
cosmetics (i.e. make-up). This clearly served as a way in which having
relaxed hair became an instance of legitimation; because those who
did not have relaxed hair were not rewarded, and those with relaxed
hair were rewarded for it. It was societys way of portraying that having
relaxed hair is right and just in the eyes of society. This is the same
instance for the tone of skin. Kevin Keenan states in his article that,
research found black women in the magazine ads to be lighter
(Keenan, 1996) and that Ebony magazine tended to use models that
were more Caucasian than negroid (Keenan, 1996). Although one
may argue that the article is up to date, it is till a reflection of the way
in which African-American women are portrayed on magazines today.
An example of this was the controversial case of where the famous
singer Beyonc, was photo shopped to exhibit a skin colour several
tones lighter than her natural hue. (Glaister, 2008)
What happens as a result of these advertisements is what is
known as naturalization, where African/African-American women wear
their hair relaxed now because it is deemed as normal. The number of
African/African-American women have relaxed hair has significantly
increased and the idea of having relaxed hair is now considered as the

Benedicta Arthur
CAS 238
Essay 2
normal way of wearing ones hair. As an African girl, I didnt have a
choice as to whether I wanted to wear my hair as natural or not
because what was seen as the best option for me was to have my hair
relaxed because my mom, my aunts and all my female relatives had
their hair relaxed. It was normal. This sadly has become a reality today
in most African/African-American communities. Even though there have
been efforts and movements to change the norm, there is till as a
significant amount of African/African-American women who have their
hair relaxed because of the powerful influence that ideological rhetoric
in the form of advertisements had on them. Relaxed hair is now their
reality.
White maintains that, since non-discursive phenomena are
included in the scope of rhetoric, visual images such as choice of
hairstyles, are rhetorical. The inclusion of hair in the study of rhetoric
facilitates

broader

and

more

germane

understanding

by

demonstrating that symbols extend beyond words. (White, 2005) The


advertisements of the standard of beauty for African/African-American
women hence are expressing ideological rhetoric of beauty by how
they express themselves through their hair. After all, it is said that a
womans pride lies in her hair.

REFERENCES

Benedicta Arthur
CAS 238
Essay 2
1) Glaister, D. (2008, August 8). L'Oreal denies 'whitening' Beyonc Knowles' skin
in cosmetics ad. In The Guardian. Retrieved October 25, 2014
2) Keenan, K. L. (1996). Skin tones and physical features of blacks in magazine
advertisements. Journalism and mass communication quarterly.
3) Skin Tone and Hair in Black Magazines. (2002). .
4) White, S. B. (2005). Releasing the pursuit of bouncin and behavin hair: natural
hair as an Afrocentric feminist aesthetic for beauty. International Journal of
Media and Cultural Politics, 1(3).