screenshot of the beauty parlour

Sephora – Black Beauty is Beauty Campaign


Sephora claims to be the largest beauty community in the world with an extensive range of cosmetic products from more than 250 brands. They are also committed to increasing their positive social impact by empowering women in their company, building a more inclusive workforce and improving the retail experience for all its consumers.

Their “Black beauty is beauty” advertisement draws attention to the impact Black culture has on mainstream beauty trends and products. This guide will focus on the different ways brands demonstrate their personal values to appeal to their target audience and how media representations can help audiences define their identity in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender. We will also consider the influence of the social and commercial context behind the text’s progressive message.

Black Beauty is Beauty

The advertisement was created by the marketing company R/GA Media and broadcast on two major networks with a primary audience of African Americans: Black Entertainment Television (BET) and Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). It was also streamed on YouTube and other digital platforms.

Directed by Garrett Bradley, who was nominated for Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2020, the sixty second film is a montage of intimate observations of people getting their hair done and applying makeup. The narrator refers to the significant contribution of Black beauty pioneers have on mainstream trends and products. For example, Lyda Newman was a black female inventor who patented the first hairbrush with synthetic bristles to make styling more hygienic and efficient. Her invention completely changed the hair-care industry.

screenshot of hairbrush patent and someone picking up a brush
Screenshot from the Sephora Advertisement

By sharing the history of Black beauty culture and giving it the recognition it deserves, the filmmaker and marketing team are enhancing the integrity of the Sephora brand. This is important because consumers will buy products and services they can trust, especially from companies which are advocates for a better society.

Social and Cultural Context

Social movements are now shaped by social media. Activists can reach across digital networks with their memorable hashtags and clever slogans to bring their agenda to the attention of a global audience. Social media has normalised conversations and debate about important issues, such as climate change, misogyny, poverty, and racial inequality.

For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement highlighted terrible acts of police brutality and demanded reform of the criminal justice system with its legacy of discriminatory processes and negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities, but their message was shared around the world through retweets, follows, likes, and collaborations. Everyone could express their anger and despair with just a few swipes and taps on their screens.

Social activism went mainstream and became the dominant ideology.

Commercial Context

Digital activists are also consumers.

The Edelman Earned Brand study explores the most effective ways brands have developed and reinforced their relationships with consumers. In 2018, their survey revealed the “majority of consumers across markets, age and income” were belief-driven buyers who were interested in both a brand’s products and its principles.

consumer statistics from Edelman survey
Source: Edelman Earned Brand (2018)

Put simply, businesses and organisations could sell more services and products if they aligned their brand values with their target audience’s attitudes and ideologies.

This deep engagement was epitomised by Nike’s controversial decision to support Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police violence by making the American footballer one of the faces of the brand’s 30th anniversary of the “Just Do It” slogan.

There was the inevitable backlash with some people burning their trainers and threatening to boycott the company. Despite an initial 2% drop in share price, Nike soon saw a $6 billion brand value increase and a 31% boost in sales.

Another good example was Starbucks’ reaction to the ridiculous arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia coffee shop which ignited widespread criticism on social media. The chief executive quickly apologised, saying, “Starbucks stands firmly against discrimination or racial profiling”. The company later closed over 8,000 shops in the United States for anti-bias training sessions in an attempt to improve its profile and regain the support of its customers.

People expect more than just a virtue-signalling message from the CEO of the company. They want to engage with brands that actually demonstrate firm commitment to ethical issues and social movements. They want brands they can trust.

consumer infographic from 2021 survey
Source: Edelman Earned Brand (2021)

Sephora’s Research

Sephora experienced its own loss of trust when the R&B singer SZA tweeted about being racially profiled in one of its shops:

screenshot of SZA's tweet

The chief executive, Jean-André Rougeot, apologised to its customers for not being “treated fairly and consistently” and soon closed the stores to give his employees extra diversity training. The company also commissioned a study which found BIPOC shoppers would use a “series of coping mechanisms to avoid racial bias and unfair treatment in stores”, including not trying any samples and keeping their hands out of their pockets to avoid accusations of theft. Racial bias had a huge impact on retailers because “more than ½ BIPOC will not shop at any of the store’s locations again” after suffering unfair treatment.

In response, Sephora committed to the 15% Pledge and increased the number of Black-owned brands sold in its stores and online. New policies and practices were introduced to improve diversity and inclusion in their workforce. They also updated marketing and production guidelines “to encourage diverse voices and identities” in their promotional material and social media output, leading to the development of the “Black Beauty is Beauty” campaign.

Constructed Identity

Many people feel excluded from a shop before they even walk into the store because of the narrow representation used in the retailer’s marketing campaigns and advertisements. If you do not see yourself reflected in the identities constructed by the promotional materials for a shop, you might feel the need to justify why you want to enter that space.

When Sephora studied the “racially biased experiences and unfair treatment in US retail settings”, 3 out of 4 shoppers believed “marketing fails to showcase a diverse range of skin tones, body types, and hair textures”. By offering more positive representations of Black beauty and innovation, the brand’s online advert could reassure someone who is questioning their identity and worried about how they will be received by others.

David Gauntlett (2002) believed media texts were a “reflection of changing attitudes” and they were “actively disseminating modern values”. The “Black beauty is beauty” campaign is certainly reinforcing his point because the brand is supporting its target audience’s desire for change by positioning itself as the champion of diversity.

The sociologist also suggested media representations could help people construct a meaningful story of self-identity. In the same way depictions of masculinity in men’s magazines in the 1990s were “enabling a more confident management of the narrative of the self”, positive representation of Black beauty and culture could empower the target audience and promote self-confidence.

Race and Ethnicity

The close study product features a diverse cast engaging in their own beauty rituals and makeup routines: the beauty parlour and its sense of community; drag queens preparing for a show, a mother tight coiling her daughter’s hair; carnival dancers; and young women from different ethnic and racial groups getting ready in their rooms.

images from the Sephora ad showing the range of representation in the product
The Representation of Different Ethnic and Racial Groups

The producers have encoded a very clear message – many of the mainstream beauty trends and products have their roots in Black beauty culture and that innovation should be celebrated by everyone. The voiceover anchors that preferred reading by posing the question at the start “what is beauty without Black beauty” and then saying “its influence is universal”.

In her criticism of Hollywood cinema, bell hooks (1996) argued the representation of “glamour” and “beauty” on the big screen was “always encoded as white”. Even Marilyn Monroe dyed her hair blonde to look whiter.

The social activist also said advertisements were a “primary vehicle for the dissemination and perpetuation of white-supremacist and patriarchal values” and there is no doubt Black women have been underrepresented in advertising, often reduced to stereotypes, such as the Mammy Caricature.

Stuart Hall (1981) also criticised the “deep ambivalence” encoded in representations of race which were supposed to be positive. For example, the “double vision of the white eye” might depict a Black comedian putting on show, but “it is never quite clear whether we are laughing with or at this figure”. There is always something “lurking just below the surface” in these representations of the Other.

By emphasising the immense influence of Black culture on the beauty industry, Sephora’s advertisement draws attention to the racial bias in society which has often excluded positive representations of Black beauty from the mainstream narrative. The call to action at the end makes it clear the audience should be “supporting and celebrating Black beauty”.


W.E.B. Du Bois (1910) called “whiteness” a “religion” because it was a concept based on faith rather than biology. He saw race as a modern invention created to justify colonisation and “ownership of the earth”. Therefore, race is not a meaningful index of identity or an essential truth, but a social construct and economic imperative.

Stuart Hall (1981) believed “racism is one of the most profoundly naturalised of existing ideologies”. Although the idea of race is based on broad cultural assumptions and influenced by political philosophies, we often believe the social construct is scientific fact because it can “provide us with the means of making sense of social relations and our place in them”.

Since “the media’s main sphere of operations is the production and transformation of ideologies”, we should praise Sephora for articulating a confident and optimistic viewpoint because their positive representation contrasts with other media products in the past which reduced Black culture to cruel and hurtful stereotypes.

Double Consciousness

Du Bois (1903) used the term double-consciousness to describe the internal conflict he experienced as an African American struggling to reconcile his “two souls” in a racist society. He wrote there was a “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”.

Many BIPOC respondents to the Sephora survey said they had to “struggle to be seen beyond the physical” because they felt racially profiled when entering a shop. They would “bring designer handbags to avoid assumptions they can’t afford to shop there” and deliberately “interact with employees to make it known they are interested in spending money”. Some even shopped online to avoid having to navigate the awful in-store experience.

Sephora’s short film avoids images of its stores and instead locates the camera inside spaces which are familiar to its target audience. This is epitomised by the opening shot of the beauty parlour – a culturally important signifier because they often connote a sense of community and friendship. By connecting the brand to a mother and daughter in their living room, for example, the advertisement could be implying the stores are just as safe and warm as your own home.

Sephora and Gender Trouble

Instead of being fixed or natural forms, Judith Butler (1990) argued gender identities were constructions which give us a framework to view ourselves and our bodies. Their concept of gender performativity refers to the ways society, including the media, forces people to conform to a particular set of gender roles and values. However, these “illusions of identity” were being subverted and displaced by representations, such as drag, which demonstrated gender was actually a “stylized repetition of acts” we all perform.

screenshot of drag queens getting ready for a show
Beat Face

In one scene, three drag queens are in a dressing room beating their faces – a makeup style consisting of dramatic contouring, cut crease eyeshadow and charismatic glows. The Sephora advertisement is celebrating the influence of drag culture on mainstream beauty trends, but also recognising gender identities are not limited to the traditional binary definitions. You can write your own narrative because beauty belongs to everyone.

This is a very powerful message which will appeal to contemporary consumers who are willing to construct new patterns of gender and identity. You should compare the representation here to the depiction of masculinity and femininity in the Score advertisement which is also on the AQA A Level Media Studies course.

Essay Questions

  1. Explain why Sephora’s “Black beauty is beauty” advertisement is culturally significant.
  2. To what extent are the conventions of advertising dependent on the context in which they are produced?
  3. Explain the close study product appeal to the target audience in terms of Todorov’s narrative theory, including the concepts of disequilibrium and repair.
  4. How does the advertisement position the audience to desire the Sephora brand?
  5. Using the AIDA principle of marketing, explain how the marketing company behind Sephora’s “Black beauty is beauty” are trying to influence the target audience.
  6. To what extent are brand values in driving growth?
  7. Why do advertisers use positive and negative stereotypes to convey their message to the consumer?
  8. Using the close study product “Black beauty is beauty”, to what extent do you think advertisers are able to construct reality through representations?
  9. To what extent do social and cultural contexts have on media representations. Use the close study product “Black beauty is beauty” in your answer.
  10. “Media texts are a reflection of society, but they also have the power to transform society.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

Butler, Judith (1990): “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity”.
Edelman (2018): “Edelman Earned Brand“.
Edelman (2021): “Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust, The New Brand Equity”.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903): “The Souls of Black Folk”.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (1910): “The Souls of White Folk”.
Gauntlett, David (2002): “Media, gender and identity”.
Hall, Stuart (1981): “The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideology and the Media”.
hooks, bell (1996): “Reel to Real Race, Sex and Class at the Movies”.
Sephora (2021): “Racial Bias in Retail Study and Initiatives”.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!