Why Representation Is the Primary Concern:
Exploring Advertising’s Cultural Impact
Advertising messages, in order to sell products, also create meaning. The powerful, pervasive influence of advertising is a man-made, carefully constructed reflection not only of the brand image of the product but also of the image of the consumer and the images in the minds of the people entrusted to create the ads.
Advertising is not subliminal in the hidden messages embedded in ice cubes, but in the
sense that we aren’t consciously aware of what advertising is doing (Kilbourne 1999: 159).
From the early days of advertising in the eighteenth century to today, the art and business of advertising has been a well-financed, carefully considered mass communication effort designed to reshape our social communication and create needs and wants that did not exist before. Marketers seek to increase profits by building emotional connections with consumers, and then fostering brand loyalty by creating artificial, imaginary depictions of narrowly defined target audiences enjoying those products. These aspirational, emotional, evocative images are designed to homogenize audiences and motivate consumers to see themselves as achieving idealized goals of happiness through purchase of consumer goods.
Not only does advertising frame representations of various groups, but advertising’s images convey models of contemporary human experience. In the days of slavery, advertisers proudly displayed images of slaves bought and sold as if they were beasts of burden. Today, we are surrounded by emotionally engaging images of ethnically diverse, happy people drinking beer, wearing Nikes, smoking cigarettes, eating fast food. Yet, in either case, to whom do these idealized images belong? Who is framing these representations? All creative work is a reflection of its creators. In contemporary times these creators are, of course, the art director, copywriter, and creative director assigned to the account—and their client. These individuals, supported by huge media budgets, have enormous power to influence cultural norms and social behavior. Furthermore, ethnocentrism is an innately human behavior. Therefore, the background, ethnicity, cultural experiences, and cultural sensitivity of these creative individuals are of paramount importance in creating ads that are positive representations of various ethnicities. In Adweek article “Crossing Over,” in 2005, young creative directors are interviewed about the work of general market agencies attempting to target African Americans:
Perry Fair, a young associate creative director, remembers being a little starstruck as he sat across the table from one of ... the top creative directors, ... [He] had been recently hired by True Agency ... a multicultural shop [part of TBWAChiaDay in Playa del Rey, California]. Fair’s awe soon dissolved into shock as the creative director outlined an idea for a Nissan spot ... [that] involved wrapping an entire car—inside and out—in kente cloth, the colorful, traditional African fabric. The ad would show an African American family driving around in the car. [The creative director told Fair] “It would be so cool.
You people love that [cloth], right?” Fair ... informed the white creative director that such an ad would be insulting. . “I realized I was witnessing this blind spot in one of this country’s top creative agencies” (Adweek 2005).
The article points out that “good minority ads ... are the opposite of blatant.
. Rather than using cultural cues that are obvious to outsiders, they show subtle understanding and an insider’s affinity with the audience’s background. “Minority insights are based on a lifetime of cultural absorption and several years of craft .
they are like a private joke that takes a lifetime to tell.” Clearly, effective minority hiring practices are the key to telling these “private jokes” properly.
Furthermore, advertising reflects the ideological structure of the media and marketing decision-makers. What is their ideology? Simply put, to generate profits. The key to money-making in advertising is researching, defining, understanding, and reaching out effectively to a defined target audience. These messages, if well produced, are then fully appropriated by those audiences. According to Professor Oscar Gandy of The Annenberg School of Communication, “Media scholars see a causal relationship between media representation and real-life social relations ... media contribute to an understanding and appreciation of difference and that audiences integrate the beliefs and opinions generated by the media into their cognitive structures (Creedon & Cramer 2007: 224). With this much power and influence, it is instructive to examine what code of ethics advertising agencies serve. Unlike journalism, medicine, accounting, and other professions, there is no formal code of conduct for advertising agencies. Felix Gutierrez, co-author of Racism, Sexism, and the Media, notes that “Ad agencies serve no moral code other than to advocate for products so people will buy them” (Wilson et al. 2003: 161). Advertising agencies are designed to do a particular job—to sell products and please their clients with great creative work and cost-effective media buying. Advertising agencies are not concerned about the social and cultural impact of their ads; rather, they must be concerned with generating profits, enabling their businesses to grow and thrive, and continuing to secure their relationships with their clients.
The ongoing story of contemporary culture told by the advertising industry is not just a contemporary issue; it is a reflection of the history of the influence of advertising since its inception. Let us now examine what this history looks like in regard to depictions of African Americans.