Unilever’s Ads and the History of Sexual Abuse Under Slavery

The Freedman, 1863 by John Quincy Adams Ward (Photo by Deputy Tex)

In a typical US advertisement for Magnum ice cream, a young, attractive white woman devours an ice-cream treat coated in chocolate. The sexist advertising gimmick of using a sexualized woman to sell a product is patently obvious. What’s less clear about the ads is that they contain racialized symbolism. The brand is sexualized by its apparently intentional association with the condom brand that markets itself as designed for larger-than-average penises. In many of the ads, a white woman suggestively places the ice cream in her mouth. That the ice cream is dark chocolate-coated suggests a specific connection to the historically taboo intimacy of Black men and White women.

The British-Dutch parent company Unilever has come under fire before in the US for racist advertisements, including for Dove body wash, and in other countries for their racist promotions of Magnum ice cream. A commercial widely used across the globe clearly deploys this racial symbolism. In Pakistan in 2016, Magnum launched an ad campaign by having a Black man covered in chocolate sit in a bathtub, a feminized space associated with indulgence and sensuality — the man evidently himself waiting to be consumed, his body indistinguishable from the chocolate confection.

Some might see the Magnum advertisement as entirely about the pleasures of ice cream, maybe even positive, if we accept that the sub-text depiction of Black men casts them as desirable. The Magnum commercial that I see, however, is but one example of how the dominant culture today still uses images of Black men as symbols of pleasure and power than can be consumed, harnessed, and used by whites for their own purposes.

I know that I interpret the Magnum ads in a particular way because my most recent research has been about sexual exploitation of enslaved men, and it has sensitized me to the sexual exploitation of Black men that carries on to this day from a system created for the purposes of enslavement. Under slavery, Black men were characterized as hypersexual. Sexualized imagery of Black men first emerged significantly in the early nineteenth century.

Racist images of Black men have their roots in slavery, but ironically, it was abolitionists who unwittingly contributed to an already established culture of objectification of enslaved people, when they circulated images of Black men’s exposed bodies. In reality, most enslaved men survived on meager diets, suffered regular injuries from hard labor, and carried the extensive scars and brands of a brutal system of enslavement. Many abolitionists, however, depicted enslaved men with the glorified physiques of Greek and Roman statues.

Portraying Black men’s bodies in this style linked them to the virtue, character, and intellect associated with Greco-Roman ideals. Some imagery, such as Marcel Antoine Verdier’s “Beating at Four Stakes” (1843), contrasted the body-type associate with those ideals with the conditions of slavery to underscore the absurdity of the institution of slavery. British artist Richard Ansdell’s “The Hunted Slaves” (1861), for another example, illustrated a muscularly powerful man defending his wife from dogs as they escape enslavement. Others placed enslaved men in poses that echoed those used in the Classical world. “The Freedman” (1862), for example, bears a striking resemblance to the statue “Boxer at Rest” (4th century B.C.).

While abolitionists circulated images of enslaved men that portrayed them as god-like men, fascination with the physique of Black men was also rampant in the art world. In 1810, British painter Benjamin Haydon wrote about his near obsession with Black men’s bodies. In his diary, Haydon described a fetishization of a man from Boston named Wilson, who he referred to as “the Black,” a man he sketched, drew, and concluded was a “beauty in any position.”1

Haydon’s approach showed a callous disregard for Wilson’s welfare. When he went to replicate his full body in plaster, Wilson nearly suffocated and had to be broken out of the mold. Yet Haydon reflected not about the near tragedy, but instead focused on the intact pieces of casts of Wilson’s posterior and genitals, writing that he thought they were “the most beautiful sight on earth.” Blurring the lines between artist and possessor, he wrote, “I cast him, drew him and painted him till I had mastered every part.”

Naturalists were also engaged in producing images of enslaved men that violated their bodies. In Charleston in 1850, for example, Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz photographed five enslaved men — Alfred, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty — and two enslaved women — Delia and Drana. Some of them, including the women, were photographed without shirts on. Two of the men were photographed completely naked.

The attention that both Haydon and Agassiz paid to Black men’s bodies was not simply aesthetic, and we would be remiss to read into this as admiration for Black people. This was no “Black is Beautiful” campaign. Haydon considered Wilson to be inferior, writing that the “Negro was the link between animal and man.” Similarly, Agassiz believed his photographic study would confirm the biological inferiority of Black people. Their scrutiny was indicative of a culture that had long held both fascination and revulsion for Black bodies.

Although we don’t have enslaved men’s reactions to these images, we do know that many Black men resented the exposure of their bodies. Formerly enslaved men wrote about their humiliation at being stripped naked at points of sale or for lashings, often in front of family and friends, and tied in especially vulnerable and exposed positions. John Brown, who escaped his enslavement in Georgia, wrote about the revealing clothing that enslaved people were forced to wear: “They are made of the lowest quality of material,” he stated, “and get torn in the bush, so that the garments soon become useless, even for purposes of the barest decency … We slaves feel that this is not right,” Brown declared.2

Unsurprisingly, Black men who were not bound by enslavement presented themselves as did white men, fully clothed and with the accessories associated with status. The well-known portrait of writer Olaudah Equiano, for example, depicts him covered from wrists to chin. Similar images can be found in autobiographical accounts of men who escaped enslavement. Henry Bibb’s 1849 account, for example, included an engraving of a fully dressed Black man defending his wife and child as they were attacked by dogs during their escape from enslavers, an image that stands in noteworthy contrast to the similar scene as Ansdell’s 1861 painting, which depicted the man nearly naked.

In the wake of slavery, sexual power and potency became recast by the culture as a looming, threatening savagery. The myth of Black men as sexual predators of white women was propagated by those seeking to maintain white supremacy, established under slavery. That white women had sexually preyed upon enslaved men for generations must have made this lie even more offensive to those who had lived through that pain or who had been raised with stories of family traumas.

With the life-or-death challenges confronting Black men today, it may strike some as trivial to focus on an ad campaign for ice cream that sexualizes Black men. Ads like the ones for Unilever’s Magnum ice cream, however, contribute to the broader cultural dehumanization of Black people. They are directly linked to the violence that white supremacy deploys through its constant subtle messaging about Black subordination.

The specter of a sexually-charged connection between a white woman and Black man that makes the Magnum commercial stand out for me is a glib reference to a long and bloody history in this country, one that was especially pronounced after slavery ended and the nation tortured and lynched Black men on trumped-up charges of intimacy with white women.

The roots of sexual objectification of Black men can be found in slavery, and it requires no great leap of logic to connect the dehumanization of Black men in the era of enslavement with the literal destruction of those enslaved bodies. The same thinking that argued Black men were objects of desire also reduced them to objects under the law.

Today, the sexualized Black manhood in the Magnum ice cream commercials also sells GNC’s testosterone enhancements, fuels a racist billion-dollar pornography industry, feeds mass incarceration and police violence, and contributes to actual sexual violence against Black males, especially those who are incarcerated, under-age, or in other positions of vulnerability. The sexualized objectification of Black men, wherever you see it, was developed under slavery and shored up the power of enslavers, but it continues today — tethered to violence and sometimes masquerading as a sugar-coated indulgence.

  1.  Malcolm Elwin, The Autobiography and Journals of Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1786–1846 (1853; London: MacDonald, 1950), 123–24.
  2.  L. A. Chamerovzow, ed., Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England (London, 1855), 4-5, http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/jbrown/jbrown.html.
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Thomas A. Foster

Thomas A. Foster is a Professor of History at Howard University. He is the author of Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men (University of Georgia Press, 2019).

Comments on “Unilever’s Ads and the History of Sexual Abuse Under Slavery

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    I am puzzled the article barely mentioned the exploitation, and left out completely the raping, of enslaved and free black women. Jackie Rabouin, Ph.D.

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