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Home arrow Political science arrow Dimensions of Racism in Advertising: From Slavery to the Twenty-First Century

The 1990s and 2000s: Rise of Multicultural Marketing

By the early 1990s, ethnic or multicultural marketing became the mantra of contemporary marketing. This new marketing paradigm views the market as “divided into segments and aims at gathering information regarding the customers, traditions, rituals, relationships and identifies of these segments of potential consumers” (Lamont & Molnar 2001: 35). Marketers realized that media that successfully appealed to diverse audiences, with culturally relevant messages, would have the greatest chance for success. Clearly, the goal of advertising is to promote sales and consumption. Extensive market research and testing helps advertisers determine which markets are most viable. According to Wilson, Gutierrez, and Chao, “Racial and ethnic media are in an exploitative relationship with their audience ... advertising promotes products as quick fixes for low income consumers. The message is you may not live in the best neighborhoods, but you can drink the same liquor (as white people)” (2003: 166).

As multicultural marketing grew, the categories of liquor, tobacco, and alcohol advertising continued to dominate minority-targeted media outlets. Research has shown that African Americans are still more aggressively targeted than white audiences with ads for alcohol, fast food, and tobacco. In 2003, the Center on

Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) issued a report, “Exposure of African- American Youth to Alcohol Advertising, 2003 to 2004,” detailing the exposure of African American youth to alcohol advertising in magazines and on radio and television. That report provided the first comprehensive review of African American youth exposure to alcohol advertising. Specifically, the report finds that:

Compared to the per capita exposure of youth in general, African-American youth were exposed to 17% more beer and ale magazine advertising and 43% more distilled spirits magazine advertising per capita in 2003, as well as 21 % more beer and ale advertising and 42% more distilled spirits advertising in magazines in 2004.

Alcohol advertising was placed on all fifteen of the most-watched television programs among African-American youth in 2004. Three leading alcoholic beverage brands (Bud Light, Heineken Beer and Miller Genuine Draft) contributed more than half of the nearly $4.8 million spent on this advertising (Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth 2003).

The data regarding tobacco advertising are equally convincing, though unfortunately not surprising. A 2007 study by Brian A. Primack, James E. Bost, Stephanie R. Land, and Michael J. Fine indicates that African Americans are also still exposed to more pro-tobacco advertising than Caucasians. “The pooled rate ratio of African American to Caucasian tobacco-related billboard densities was 2.6 (95% CI 1.5, 4.7), indicating that there were 2.6 times as many tobacco advertisements per person in African American neighborhoods compared with Caucasian neighborhoods” (Primack, Bost, Land & Fine 2007). Previously, African Americans who wanted recognition at times imitated upper-class members of the mainstream culture through “conspicuous consumption of goods usually associated with wealth” (Rossman 1994: 141). For example, African Americans on the lower economic rungs of American society tend to depict wealth by purchasing expensive cars, clothing, and other luxury items. Thus Michele Lamont and Virag Molnar argue that “Marketing specialists believe that blacks use consumption to signify and acquire equality, respect, acceptance and status” (2001: 31). Marketers interpret the buying habits of blacks as strongly guided by a desire to be recognized as equal and full participating members of society and to disprove the stereotype of blacks as belonging to an underclass deprived of buying power. This desire is manifested in distinct consumption patterns: in comparison to whites, blacks spend disproportionately more on items that they view as affirming their equal standing (36).

Between alcohol, tobacco, fast food ads, and omnipresent selling of conspicuous consumption, it is clear that African Americans, even today, are often still not positively reflected in representations created by advertising agencies.

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