Dr. Elizabeth Tunstall on how to make advertising a safer space for Black people

In 2016, Dr. Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall became the first Black Dean of a Faculty of Design anywhere in the world, when she was hired by Toronto’s OCAD University.

At the time, she described her appointment as aligning with a larger commitment by the school to become “a global leader of inclusive, decolonizing and Indigenizing design curriculum, practice, and scholarship.” Tunstall calls this “Respectful Design.”

Practically speaking, Tunstall has been working to correct the ways systemic racism has shaped the design world—including education—in ways that make it harder for young Black, Indigenous and other racialized students to join the field.

As society starts to have long overdue conversations about systemic racism, the marketing industry has to grapple with the question of why so few Black people work in advertising.

Tunstall has a particularly relevant perspective on this issue. The advertising program at OCAD University is part of her Faculty of Design, and after getting her PhD in anthropology from Stanford University, she worked in advertising for several years.

The Message spoke with her about Black representation in the ad world, beginning the conversation by asking her why she thinks there aren’t more Black people in the ad industry today.


“I think it’s two reasons,” she says. “First it has to do with the perception of the advertising field, especially in relationship to [the fact that] much of the advertising that young Black, Indigenous and other racialized students encounter is racist.

“That’s improved, but it still happens. And every time it happens, there’s a huge uproar in the community, lots of mea culpas, but then another one happens—sometimes even with the same advertising firm or the same advertising clients—and nothing seems to structurally change.”

Secondly, she says that despite being based on creativity, the advertising industry is actually very rigid, highly structured and hierarchical. Different thinking is valued to the extent it can be commoditized, but actually rejects different perspectives that challenge the hierarchy.

“I worked in the advertising world… some of the most problematic experiences I’ve had were within the advertising field,” she says.

She recalled the incident that pushed her out of the industry. Her team had been working 80-hour weeks for several weeks, and at a meeting to review their work, an account director swooped in and casually tore apart everything they presented. That kind of disrespectful behaviour may simply be bad management, but it’s uniquely harmful to Black people, says Tunstall.

“A white person coming in disrespecting your work has a harder impact if you are a Black cis-female, because you have already been devalued by a society in which you, on average, make 63 cents for every $1 a white male makes, or have to endure the questioning of your skills and education because you are not supposed to outshine your white, often mediocre, peers.”

Tunstall stood up to the account director: “I remember speaking out, saying ‘That’s a little bit disrespectful’… I criticized the structure of the way in which the critique was happening.” By daring to speak up, Tunstall faced retribution.

“I was ostracized from peers, demoted from choice projects, and punished for asking for respect. Respect is of particular value to Black communities, because our experiences of racism is an everyday affront to our sense of respect.

“So the toxic institutional culture in an advertising firm weighs on top of a toxic society for minorities, especially Black women, which means they are carrying twice the weight,” she says.

“I left advertising after that because that could happen so quickly and with no consultation, no discussion of why I would even feel it was necessary to speak up in such a way. That was not a safe place for me.”

On the need to have a more diverse workforce…

“Hiring is important, because you need people in the room. What I’ve learned the most about my role at OCAD is that because I’m in the room, I know that different decisions get made compared to where those decisions were originally going before I may have spoken up.

“Hiring is important because it changes the structure of the organization and you have to have critical mass. People think hiring is about having one person each or something like that… You need a critical mass, so that you can change the conversation, not just introduce the topic.”

Talking to employers…

Tunstall regularly talks with employers about the need to improve diversity, and recently spoke about the problem with Julien Christian Lutz—the award winning music video and commercial director DirectorX, who is being given an honorary degree by OCAD.

“I had long conversation with him about the conversations he has with the advertising industry around there needing to be more diversity, [and] there needing to be more inclusion.

“For me it’s baffling that this even has to be a conversation in a place as diverse as Toronto. If you want to speak authentically the languages of the diversity that exists, then I would expect you to have that diversity built into all your advertising firms—in your creative teams, in your executive team, your client relationship team—to be as effective as you can be in creating the right insights about what messages would be the most effective.”

What OCAD doing to get more young Black people into the industry…

Tunstall cites a number of different efforts, including shining a spotlight on successful Black alumni as part of OCAD marketing efforts. “That’s really important in terms of ‘You can’t be it, if you can’t see it,'” she says. They also use students in the program to develop those campaigns, an experience that is particularly beneficial in helping young Black students find their footing in an industry where the margin for error is often smaller than that for white people.

“The first time you make a mistake on a job [as a racialized person], that’s the last time you’re going to get hired,” she says. “For us it’s really important to provide our students with those professional experiences, with the ability for them to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, so that by the time they’re ready to go into the professional world, they’re making less mistakes because we’ve lovingly corrected their mistakes. That’s really important because it builds confidence.”

Talking to kids about Blackreach…

The faculty of design has also developed a program called Blackreach, with workshops for young Black students aged eight to 12. Two OCAD students and one professional designer visit with children and talk to them about the profession and why it’s important for Black people to go into the creative industry.

Why eight and 12 year olds? Because that’s the age they are often discouraged from being creative, she says. “I think when you’re young—as a 12 year old, and you’re drawing a lot—I think especially from a socio economic perspective that many parents do not want you to become a starving artist.

“And so they start discouraging them from doing that… because they’re concerned that you won’t be able to make a living doing that. So for us, the idea is to be able to show you—again, when society or your parents are beginning to discourage you—that look, there’s all these Black people who made a living from drawing.”

Does OCAD’s advertising program have enough Black students?

The short answer here is no. They’re doing a survey next year, but the last one they did, in 2017 with only first-year students, found 5% self-identified as Black.

But Tunstall sees the shortage of Black students when she goes through the list of graduate photos on the website. “Out of the, let’s say 40 graduates, the most that we’ve had that were Black—that visibly we can see on the website—I think one year there was four. And I think this year there’s only two.

She knows OCAD isn’t producing enough Black graduates, in part because of the program itself.

“I know because the students come to me and [they tell me] they’ve had a really rough time in the program. That’s changing, because we’ve gotten new faculty. With a Black Cluster Hire, Angela Bains is going to be a member of the advertising program. And we did that strategically, just because we know how much difficulty the Black students been having in the advertising program so I wanted a really strong representation of a really successful Black career in that program…. And Angela agreed [because] she can make a difference in terms of OCAD’s emphasis on decolonization, diversity and equity.”

So is this a bigger problem for advertising than other programs at the school?

It’s a problem with all programs, but advertising also has to overcome the negative impression that young Black people have based on their negative experience with the advertising throughout their lives. “There’s a psychological gap that you have to get over to decide that advertising is the place in which you belong, and advertising is a place in which you can authentically be yourself, and advertising is a place in which you can have impact.

“And so it’s because of how deep our relationship is to the messages of advertising that, to the extent that your exposure can be so negative, that you have a lot more that you have to get over in order to see it as a place where you can belong.”


David Brown