It’s the Real Thing!, 1978/2006, Hank Willis Thomas, 2006
Hank Willis Thomas (born 1976) was raised by a photography historian who taught him to be sensitive to the power of images. Though Thomas went on to earn degrees in fine arts and visual criticism, it was not until he photographed the funeral of his murdered his cousin in 2000 that he began pursuing photography in earnest.
A self-described photo-conceptual artist, Thomas uses images to question the role of advertising in our daily lives. As a consumer, he felt duped upon forgetting that advertisements often sell fantasies, so he tackled issues of reality, identity, and popular culture in marketing in the series Branded. These imitation ads explore the authority of images and people’s reactions to the “truths” they present.
It’s the Real Thing – part of Thomas’s Unbranded series, which strips away branding of ads aimed at or featuring African Americans – is his take on a 1978 Coca-Cola ad. He digitally removed text from the original ad, leaving groupings of African Americans – young men singing, girls talking, a maternal figure perched at the top of the stoop – all enjoying a soda. The title plays on Coca-Cola’s former slogan but does not include anything that specifically identifies the sodas as Coke. In so doing, he encourages viewers to think critically about how images like this one reinforce stereotypes or construct a false reality about race and gender.
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