Racial Stereotyping in Advertising
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Racial stereotyping in advertising is not always negative, but is considered harmful in that the repetition of a stereotype naturalizes it and makes it appear "normal".[1]

It is said that advertisers often utilize already existing deep-seated ideologies in society and base their commercials on them.[2] Stereotypes have been used in advertisement as long as they have been around, and different ads over time have been thought by some to be more racist than others.

Racial stereotypes are used frequently in advertising. They are mental ideologies that the viewer assigns meaning to based on their membership in a social category in order to process information "as such, stereotyping does not by definition carry negative or positive values".[3] Because of this, we see many different outcomes; racial stereotyping can be positive for the advertiser as well as the viewer in instances where specific demographics are being targeted. However, it can also be perceived negatively in instances where the stereotyping begins causing offence. "Marketers should be aware of the potential to cause serious or widespread offence when referring to different races, cultures, nationalities or ethnic groups".[4]

Defining racism in advertising

There is not an agreed-upon way to define racism and its use in advertisement because there is no standard idea of what racism is.[5] The use of racial tropes is a common way to target specific demographics, and this is not inherently negative, though racism is.[6] This causes a great deal of debate when discussing whether it is ethical to use stereotypes in advertisement. Some people regard the use of archetypes to point to specific groups of people as racist, because it is a generalization. It could be offensive to some members of a group when their media representations are disproportionately distributed across a narrow type of appearance, and advertising is arguably the most prevalent medium available. However, some may think that as long as the depictions do not cause harm, and they are successful in targeting a specific demographic, then they are not racist and are fair game for advertising.[7]

Stereotypes are defined as the inferred belief that roles, attributes and positions in society are assigned to different groups of people based on race, religion, sexual orientation or gender.[8] Stereotyping in advertising can be used in ways that are useful in providing orientation with which an audience can relate to, but often are oversimplified representations of any group in society which can contribute to misleading information.[9]

Reasons for stereotyping in advertising have long been discussed, and often boil down to the "mirror" vs the "mold" argument coined by Pollay in 1986.[10] On the one hand, it can be argued that advertising mirrors society, and is not presenting any stereotypes not already held. Advertising merely reflects our lifestyles, and uses repetition and insistence that this is what life already is to drive consumer engagement and purchase. Conversely, the "mold" argument insists that advertising influences society, and thus encourages stereotypes that are shaped by media. Sales are driven by society attempting to conform to the stereotypes and ideas communicated in advertising, as it shapes their own values and beliefs.[11]

Essentially, stereotyping in advertising is the use of caricatures, be they based on truth or perception, to portray an idea in a short amount of time.[12] With these quick-fire caricatures, there is no need for a thirty-second commercial to include a back story to the featured idea, as audiences fill in the gaps based on preconceived notions of what that person or situation represents. This facilitates a relationship between audiences and the advertisement in which audiences can understand a simplified situation with little to no information, and thus make purchasing decisions,[9] however can be damaging towards the affected groups.

Positive effects: targeting specific demographics

Racial stereotyping creates positive results in situations where the advertisement is being targeted to a specific demographic, (for example, a specific race). Audiences automatically install a perceptual bias toward people or characters similar to themselves. This is called an in-group. An in-group consists of people that individuals socially identify themselves with, such as similarities in age, race, gender, religion and so on. Studies have shown that "the enhancement of in-group bias is more related to increased favoritism toward in-group members than to increased hostility toward out-group members".[13] Advertisers use this knowledge when targeting a product or service to a particular market and might use demographics to aid their information. For example, different countries and cultures inhibit different languages, different interpretation of symbols and cultural barriers that can limit the effectiveness of advertisements. This is where advertisers take into consideration the in-group bias theory. Viewers are more likely to cast favouritism toward people that they can socially identify with. Therefore, if an advertiser is advertising in Japan, they would use Japanese models, characters and language so that the viewers could identify with the advertisement. Whereas if they were advertising in Italy, these features would not reach the target audience effectively unless they altered the advertisement to align with the specific demographics of the Italian audience. Edward T. Hall explains to us that context is an element in communication that must never be overlooked. Context is what gives meaning to words, if they are not in the correct context they are meaningless.[14]

Targeting specific demographics is a form of racial stereotyping; however, it is seen to create positive results for both the advertiser and the viewer. The advertiser reaches the targeted audience effectively while the audience views advertisements that applies to them and that they can relate with.

Many questions are constantly arising regarding the ethical use of racial stereotyping in advertising. This form of racial stereotyping, where a specific demographic is being targeted for a product or service particular to them, is seen as commonplace for advertising stereotypes. This technique is deemed ethical so long no offence has occurred.

Negative effects: causing offence

Negative effects of racial stereotyping come into play when we start to see people taking offence. It is very common for advertisements to be misinterpreted due to the increased number of factors contributing to noise along the communication process.

Srividya Ramasubramanian talks about the way that stereotypes turn from being harmless into something that can be deeply offensive. She states that there are two stages of the stereotyping process "stereotype activation that is more automatic, and stereotype application that is more deliberate. In other words, stereotypical thoughts about out-groups are readily activated at the implicit level even though they are not applied consciously at the explicit level."[15] It is when we see these stereotypical thoughts activated explicitly through the use of advertisements that offence takes place. It is the conscious thought that is being communicated that offends people.

As discussed earlier, people naturally identify themselves socially, they assign qualities to themselves that they can also associate with other people. This is also known as an in-group. When people have close ties to a specific group, it is common to see group members take offence to something impacting another member. "Stereotyping a group has significant impact on the way the individuals within the group self-identify".[16] So when advertisers use racial stereotypes in a negative form, generally we see two different outcomes, one; being that a person takes offence and hostility toward the advertiser arises, and two; people question themselves and the groups they belong to and can lead to a form of self oppression. "Social stereotypes that surround us, further shape our self-identity and consequently, the decisions we make".[16] Both of which outcomes cause damage to both the advertiser and the viewer and can be seen as unethical advertising.

Beauty whitewash

Beauty whitewash is a term that is used in the advertising industry that refers to the harmful ideal that beauty can be defined by skin and hair colour. The term applies particularly to photographs where the skin and hair colour of the model is manipulated to be lighter. In a TEDx talk, Jean Kilbourne stated that "women of colour who are considered beautiful only in so far as they resemble the white ideal, light skin, straight hair, Caucasian features, round eyes."[17] Whitewashing is a technique used by advertisers usually in an attempt to target a specific demographic, as discussed earlier. However, advertisers sometimes attempt to change who a person is rather than use a different person or model.

For example, in 2008, L'Oreal Paris was accused of whitewashing the singer Beyoncé's skin and hair colour for their advertising campaign. Her skin and hair colour became significantly lighter. This advertising campaign received tremendous amounts backlash due to the racial offence caused. Kilbourne stated that the image advertisers create "isn't real, it's artificial, it's constructed, it's impossible".[17] The black community felt offense as they believed that a mockery was made of the black race. This advertisement was seen to send conflicting messages to the young fan base that Beyoncé maintains. In an opinion piece, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote, "Too many black and Asian children grow up understanding the sad truth that to have dark skin is to be somehow inferior. Of course, black and Asian parents work hard to give their children a positive self-image and confidence in their appearance, despite the cultural forces stacked against them. But when black celebrities appear to deny their heritage by trying to make themselves look white, I despair for the youngsters who see those images."[18]

Though this issue generally involves lightening a person's skin colour, the opposite can also occur. For example, in 2001, Nike digitally manipulated the skin colour of Jason Williams, a basketball player, from white to black for an advertising campaign. This received backlash for racially abusing Asian fans and Nike was fined.[19] A similar incident occurred with Ford Motor, where they darkened the face of a stunt driver in a TV advertisement. Ford was later forced to remove all new commercials featuring the modification. Ford stated that the alteration was made to make the driver less noticeable; however, they still received allegations of racism.[19]

These - along with many other similar cases of celebrity whitewashing - are examples of racial stereotyping being used negatively in advertising. According to Frith and Mueller, "Ads are not just messages about goods and services, but, ... ads are social and cultural texts about ourselves and others".[3] These advertisements use racial stereotypes in a context that has the capability of creating long term negative effects. These can include hate-crimes, self-discrimination and the creation of moral panic in society. Alibhai-Brown stated that some women are "wilfully shedding their own cultural heritage in favour of a more recent and more fashionable ideal" by trying to "look more Western".[18]

Why use stereotyping

Other scholars believe advertisers should do what works in order to invoke identification with the product and that simply because sold commodities are connected to certain cultures and people, there is no harm in emphasizing these connections. There is often very little time in TV commercials to get a point across, so advertisers set up a back-story by the use of caricatures - as Stuart Hall has argued, the reading of a particular image depends not only on the messages contained in it, but in the messages surrounding it and the situational, societal, and historical context.[20]

There has been discussion about the issues with using archetypal representations of minorities in advertising in unrealistic and distorted ways. For example, Sut Jhally argues that the representation of African Americans in the media is hypersexualized.[21] According to Stewart Hall, representation is largely how people form their identities, which becomes problematic when the representations are not empowering.[22] It has also been said that stereotypes cannot benefit the people they reference, because even if the stereotype is perceived as positive, normalizing one stereotype may reinforce other, less positive stereotypes. For example, people who hear a stereotype about African Americans being good at athletics actually have stronger negative perspectives on black people than did those who heard negative stereotypes. This may be because while many people will identify and dismiss a harmful-sounding stereotype, they may accept a positive one without noticing it, and this may subsequently reinforce their acceptance of other stereotypes.[23]

Examples of racial stereotyping and affected groups

Negative advertising stereotypes can take on many forms, such as portraying people of colour in animal skin clothing in wilderness settings, recurring images of white male-Asian female couples, and Caucasian middle-aged women in domestic scenes as caretakers or housewives.[24] The spread of cultures, ethnicities and genders that advertisers are attempting to target gives rise to the spread of groups affected by stereotyping in advertising, as shown by the following examples.

Asian Americans are often represented as affluent, well-educated individuals with a high work ethic, and tend to feature more often in advertising that promotes technology and business than African American or Latino models.[12] Asian Americans were shown in the workplace in 50% of the print ads that they featured in, whilst African Americans and Latinos were more diversely featured in a variety of activities such as outdoor and sporting pursuits or at leisure.[12] Ads that feature Asian American men often perpetuate a stereotype of success and sacrifice to achieve financial rewards, such Paek and Shah's (2003) example of a print ad, in which an Asian man talking to his wife tells her he will have to work late tonight. The ad suggests that the man is already at work and ready to make his company's goals a reality, whilst being prepared for his personal life to come as a secondary commitment. Many may argue that the stereotype of hard work and affluence may be a positive one and does not appear to be problematic.[25] To be wealthy and successful is surely a benefit in American society, however passive viewing of television and print advertising goes a long way towards shaping viewers' perceptions of minorities, and this representation of Asian Americans in the media can be damaging in so far as presenting an inaccurate picture of Asia as a whole,[25] and an incorrect defining point for each individual within that culture.

African Americans are another example of a minority stereotypically featured in advertising, where it is common to see African American males featured in advertisements promoting hip hop music.[26] They are often seen as a large representation of the hip hop culture, despite the fact that 80% of consumers of hip hop culture are not African American.[27] African American males are also often featured displaying physical and sporting prowess, such as a young man playing basketball in a Kellogg's commercial, or the variety of athletes in EA Sport's advertisements for basketball and soccer video games.[28] Bristor et al. (1995) suggest that this limited view of African Americans in non occupational and often leisurely roles may be damaging in that it suggests to youth that they have little else to work towards except for a future in hip-hop or sports. They conclude that African Americans should be shown in a wider variety of roles to truly reflect society's shifting perceptions,[28] with a greater percentage needing to be shown in management or leadership positions.

It has often observed that Latinos are a drastically underrepresented minority in the media, being featured with speaking roles in only 1% of television ads[29] and in only 4.7% of television ads overall.[30] In a study done by Mastro and Stern (2003) examining frequencies of different races in commercials, Latinos were shown to advertise soap or hygiene products in 43% of ads they are featured in, closely followed by other non-occupational roles advertising clothing or footwear. Ads also frequently show Latino populations more scantily clad than their Caucasian co-models and involved in sexualised behaviour; Mastro and Stern suggest this may teach to younger populations to identify those aspects as the most important defining factors of self.[29] Paek and Shah also found Latinos to be underrepresented (2003), and the occupations the Latino models are shown to hold are most often employment positions, closely followed by blue collar labour roles.[12] Since underrepresentation can lead to society holding false notions about the position minorities hold in society, and can skew how the minorities perceive themselves, Bang and Taylor argue that stereotypes such as lack of education or motivation can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Members of the community assume themselves to occupy a certain position in society and thus work towards that position, which would be detrimental to any culture or community if they believed themselves to be uneducated or unworthy or higher employment positions,[30] via Pollay's aforementioned "mold" effect.

Reducing racial stereotypes

The world is becoming increasingly diverse; we no longer live in a world where we can easily define a target market by their demographics. The advertising world is in need of a reboot in order to understand that racial stereotyping is hurting business more than it is helping business. "By 2010, black consumers will spend some $920 billion annually, Latinos nearly $1 trillion and Asians some $525 billion."[31] Roksana Alavi states: "We should be color-blind. Most of us are not, physically or rhetorically".[16] When racial stereotyping in advertising causes offence, this type of advertising is not ethical. The advertising world is beginning to see more research into racial stereotyping come to light along with the appearance of opinion blogs and columns that include criticism toward the issue. "We have a choice to learn more and have a clearer understanding about a certain ethnic group instead of believing everything that the media report states them to be."[32] Srividya Ramasubramanian discusses two ways in which we can approach the issue and hopefully reduce the use of racial stereotypes or at least bring awareness to it. She discusses that we can use an audience-centred approach in which the audience is instructed to be critical of media advertising; or we can apply a message-centred approach in which the media is used to dis-conform typical racial stereotypes.[15]

An example of the message-centred approach is the Dove 'Real Beauty' campaign. Dove runs their Real Beauty campaign and a movement for self-esteem to fulfil "the need for a wider definition of beauty".[33] According to the company, they have "employed various communications vehicles to challenge beauty stereotypes";[33] by running these campaigns, they explore forms of beauty that are not defined by race or racial body features, and put forth the perspective that beauty can come in all forms, shapes and colours. Issues such as beauty whitewashing is addressed where Dove states that audiences are "bombarded with unrealistic, unattainable images and images of beauty that impact their self-esteem".[33]

The audience-centred approach to reduce racial stereotypes is something that must take place at the implicit stage of stereotyping. Consumers must be provided with the knowledge of these stereotypes in order to look past them. "Suppressing the application of stereotypes in interpersonal situations"[15] is a start to this process. Changing how people interact with others on a day-to-day basis is the first step, but the way people interact with the media must also be changed in this approach. Ramasubramanian talks about how people need to "expend conscious effort to reduce stereotype accessibility while viewing biased media materials".[15] She also discusses how teaching media literacy would help audiences to critically analyze the way that the media portrays the social norms surrounding race. She states that "The assumption is that when media consumers become more conscious of the role of media in actively shaping social reality, they will be less likely to be influenced by the biased, unidimensional portrayals of racial groups in the media."[15]

See also


  1. ^ Toland Frith, Katherine; Mueller, Barbara (2010). Advertising and Societies: Global Issues. Peter Lang Publishing Inc. p. 110. ISBN 978-1433103858. Retrieved 2015.
  2. ^ Paeka, Hye Jin; Shaha, Hemant (2003). "Racial Ideology, Model Minorities, and the "Not-So-Silent Partner:" Stereotyping of Asian Americans in U.S. Magazine Advertising". Howard Journal of Communications. 14 (4): 225-243. doi:10.1080/716100430.
  3. ^ a b Frith and Mueller (2010). Advertising and Societies Global Issues. New York, United States of America: Peter Lang Publishing, inc.
  4. ^ "Offence:Racism". Committee of Advertising Practice. 2013-11-06. Retrieved .
  5. ^ Joseph, Chris. "Types of Stereotyping in Advertising". smallbusiness.chron.com.
  6. ^ "Race Tropes". tvtropes.org. Retrieved 2015.
  7. ^ "Offence: Use of stereotypes". cap.org.uk. The Committees of Advertising Practice. Retrieved 2015.
  8. ^ "Sex Roles". springer.com. Retrieved .
  9. ^ a b Eisend, Martin; Plagemann, Julia; Sollwedel, Julia (2014-07-03). "Gender Roles and Humor in Advertising: The Occurrence of Stereotyping in Humorous and Nonhumorous Advertising and Its Consequences for Advertising Effectiveness". Journal of Advertising. 43 (3): 256-273. doi:10.1080/00913367.2013.857621. ISSN 0091-3367.
  10. ^ Pollay, R (1986). "The Distorted Mirror: Reflections on the Unintended Consequences of Advertising". Journal of Marketing. 50 (2): 18-36. doi:10.2307/1251597. JSTOR 1251597.
  11. ^ Zotos, Yorgos C.; Tsichla, Eirini (2014-08-25). "Female Stereotypes in Print Advertising: A Retrospective Analysis". Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 2nd International Conference on Strategic Innovative Marketing. 148: 446-454. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.07.064.
  12. ^ a b c d Paek, J (2003). "Racial Ideology, Model Minorities, and the "Not-So-Silent Partner:" Stereotyping of Asian Americans in U.S. Magazine Advertising". Howard Journal of Communications. 14 (4): 225-243. doi:10.1080/716100430.
  13. ^ Brewer, M (1979). "In-group bias in the minimal intergroup situation: A cognitive-motivational analysis". Psychological Bulletin. 86 (2): 307-324. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.86.2.307.
  14. ^ Hall, Edward T (1976). Beyond Culture. New York.
  15. ^ a b c d e Ramasubramanian, S (2007). "Media-based strategies to reduce racial stereotypes activated by news stories". Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. 84 (2): 249-264. doi:10.1177/107769900708400204.
  16. ^ a b c Alavi, R (2010). "Race, Identity, Stereotyping and Voluntary Oppression". Global Virtue of Ethics Review.
  17. ^ a b Kilbourne, J (2014). "The dangerous ways ads see women" – via Ted Talks, Pennsylvania.
  18. ^ a b Alibhai-Brown, Y (2011). "Why I believe Beyonce is betraying all black and Asian women" – via Daily Mail.
  19. ^ a b Jackson, Jesse (2001). "Racial Stereotyping in Advertising". Financial Times.
  20. ^ Hall, Stewart. "Representation and the Media" (PDF). Retrieved 2015.
  21. ^ Jhally, Sut. "Affirming Inaction". Retrieved 2015.
  22. ^ Hall, Stewart (1997). "Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices".
  23. ^ Burkeman, Oliver (2012-12-12). "Why stereotypes are bad even when they're 'good'". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015.
  24. ^ "African American". Criticalmediaproject.org. Retrieved .
  25. ^ a b Stern, B (1997). "Asian-Americans: Television Advertising and the "Model Minority" Stereotype". Journal of Advertising. 26 (2): 47-61. doi:10.1080/00913367.1997.10673522.
  26. ^ Bailey, A (2006). "A Year in the Life of the African American Male in Advertising". Journal of Advertising. 35 (1): 83-104. doi:10.2753/joa0091-3367350106. JSTOR 20460714.
  27. ^ Chappell, K (2001). "The CEO$ of Hip-Hop and the Billion-Dollar Rap Jackpot". Ebony. 56 (3).
  28. ^ a b Bristor, J (1995). "Race and Ideology: African American Images in Televised Advertising". Journal of Public Policy and Marketing. 14 (1): 48-59. JSTOR 30000378.
  29. ^ a b Mastro, D (2003). "Representations of Race in Television Commercials: A Content Analysis of Prime Time Advertising". Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. 47 (4): 638-647. doi:10.1207/s15506878jobem4704_9.
  30. ^ a b Bang, H (1997). "Portrayals of Latinos in Magazine Advertising". Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. 74 (2): 285-303. doi:10.1177/107769909707400204.
  31. ^ Williams, H (2005). "The Big Whitewash". Adweek.
  32. ^ "A deeper in-sight at the role of media in promoting racism". Media and Racism. 2012.
  33. ^ a b c Dove (2016). "Social Mission". Dove.

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