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Still from 2016 video campaign Break the Walls for Shea Moisture
Still from the 2016 video campaign Break the Walls for SheaMoisture. Image courtesy of Sonja Johnson.

profile / alumni / film / advertising
July 19, 2019
By: Solvej Schou

Film and Advertising alumna Sonja Johnson creates campaigns that break walls

Known for her social impact campaigns for clients like SheaMoisture and Vaseline, New York City- and Southern California-based freelance art director Sonja Johnson (BFA 11 Film, BFA 14 Advertising) was just 6 years old when she made her first film.

Women and women of color in the room means women running the conversation, so tropes of women stop existing as much. Instead, you think, ‘I want to do that. I want to be that.’

Sonja Johnson

While visiting the California Museum of Photography in Riverside, which her graphic designer father helped establish, she found 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s zoetrope. A docent nearby asked her if she wanted to make one. She did, and so on a long strip of paper Johnson drew a stick figure frame by frame. The docent put the strip on a spindle, spun it, and suddenly Johnson’s character walked.

“He told me, ‘Now you’re a director, and I expect great things from you,’” says Johnson, sitting at an indoor table—light streaming in through skylight windows—at Café Medi at the Hotel Rivington in New York City’s Lower East Side. “I thought, ‘Oh! I’ve been given a title. What am I going to do?’”

What she did was write stories and plays in elementary school, and take theater and film workshops in high school. When weighing film schools, Johnson visited ArtCenter with her father, who had attended the College in the 1960s.

She remembers thinking the Hillside Campus was “incredible,” but had reservations about going to ArtCenter as her father had experienced racism as a young black man at the College. She went on to not only graduate with an undergraduate Film degree, but also an undergraduate degree in Advertising.

Portrait of Sonja Johnson by Juan Posada.
Portrait of Sonja Johnson by Juan Posada.

“The first time I graduated my dad was over the moon,” she says. “When I graduated the second time, he was extra proud. I felt like I had replaced a bad experience in his life with a positive one.”

Johnson, who went on to study in the Graduate Film Department, says several instructors at the College impacted her work greatly. Advertising Chair Gary Goldsmith’s immersive course Crashvertising propelled her into the Advertising program (“I’ve always loved commercials and short narratives,” she says.) She relished watching movies from a range of countries in Graduate Film Adjunct Professor and New York Times co-chief film critic Manohla Dargis’s Thinking Critically About Film course. And Advertising Associate Professor Dennis Lee taught her about creative safety within advertising. “Creatives need to feel safe to explore what hasn’t been done, and to be able to make mistakes,” says Johnson. “That resonated with me as a woman of color.”

In the way that Johnson traversed majors, her professional work has broken social barriers. After graduating, Johnson went to work as a junior art director at Droga5 in NYC, where she worked with clients including the YMCA, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and Under Armour, and on groundbreaking campaigns such as 2016’s Break the Walls for SheaMoisture. In a video for that campaign, black women walk through a store with an “Ethnic” section and an aisle labeled “Beauty.” “Is ‘ethnic’ not beautiful?’” says one woman, narrating. Another asks, “How can I break down those walls?” A customer closes her eyes, and shelves shake and fall. Opening her eyes, she sees rows of SheaMoisture products, which a narrator says “can now be found in the ‘Beauty’ aisle, where we all belong.”

“For Break the Walls, I wrote a manifesto called The Angry Girl Manifesto, a kind of poem about what made me mad having hair that felt different,” says Johnson. “We brought it into pitch meetings in different forms: as a softer more uplifting campaign, and more aggressive,” she says. “I read the aggressive one, and the room was quiet. I thought the client hated it. They loved it.”

Following her stint at Droga5, Johnson’s storytelling prowess extended to her projects in 2017 and 2018 when she became an art director at Vox Media. In one Vox online branded content campaign she created for Ralph Lauren, she shifted the perceived image of Polo customers as primarily white and male by showing creatives of varied backgrounds wearing the brand around NYC.

Screenshot of a 2018 Vox Media online branded content campaign for Ralph Lauren art directed by Sonja Johnson.
Screenshot of a 2018 Vox Media online branded content campaign for Ralph Lauren art directed by Sonja Johnson.

Since mid 2018, Johnson has worked bicoastally as a freelance art director for agencies including Edelman and Ogilvy UK. She enjoys splitting her time between NYC and California to be closer to her tightknit family in Riverside. “Being around my family and doing work addressing my community is great,” Johnson says. “When my nephews hear me talking about problem-solving in art and design and tackling issues that affect them, that’s influential.”

Though details of her current work is top secret for now, she’s allowed to say that her 2019 campaigns for Vaseline involve addressing women of color.

“Brands need to ask what kind of commercials and print work they can be doing,” Johnson says. “For instance, don’t call a product ‘Lightening or brightening’ to make hyper pigmentation or darkness seem bad. Women and women of color in the room means women running the conversation, so tropes of women stop existing as much. Instead, you think, ‘I want to do that. I want to be that.’”