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

Diversity in Advertising in the Twenty-First Century

Edward Lama Wonkeryor

Advertising has always been an integral part of American culture and traditions, with far-reaching racial and economic implications. In colonial America, for example, enslaved Africans constituted parts of the marketable goods that were advertised to the consuming public—predominantly European Americans. The needs and interests of African Americans were, and continue to be subservient to those of European Americans. Thus, the advertising industry developed advertising campaigns that were aimed at European Americans specifically, thereby depicting African Americans as inferior consumers. In contemporary America, the dichotomy of marketing has radically changed as African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and other Americans have become financially empowered. Today the financial capability of African Americans, for example, has transformed them into valuable consumers that marketers cannot ignore. Products that have offensive advertisements aimed at African Americans and other Americans would propel them to become disillusioned consumers and therefore cease to purchase these products.

Advertising in America commenced during the last fifty years of the 19th century and its transformative campaigns continued into the dawn of the 20th century. At the time of its transformation, the advertising industry was bent on expanding its marketability. This was “made available by the growth of the railroad and the telegraph, by the rise of national magazines, and by the capacity for surplus production” (Benjamin, Jr. 2004: 21). Since the evolution and practice of advertising, it has been guided by three cardinal principles: “to advertise to people ready, willing and able to buy; to use the media which reach them; to make advertisements which will win their business” (Boyenton 1965: 227). Boyenton went on to make an affective point that “a fourth rule: a social responsibility to represent Negroes in general advertising” (227) was added. By incorporating the fourth rule which concerns itself with social aspect, it reworks the other three delineated features which are concerned with generating profit. Next, Boyenton maintains that advertising has been made on an amoral plane. In his study, David M. Potter (1954: 177 as cited in Boyenton 1965: 227) explains, “Advertising has as its dynamics no motivation to seek the improvement of the individual or to impart social usefulness... Though it wields an immense social influence.. .it has no social goals and no social responsibility.”

Ironically, one may concur with Potter’s expressed view that advertising has commanding influence when it comes to the social potency of advertising, therefore, it must refrain from “matters which are controversial or even unpleasant, since such matters may antagonize or offend some members of the audience” (Potter 1954: 183 as cited in Boyenton, 1965: 227). The representational images of African Americans singularly and other ethnic minority Americans wholly have been stereotypically portrayed through advertisements in the mass media, because as Terence H. Qualter notes in his 1991 study, “Advertisers prosper through the perpetuation of traditional stereotypes of class, race and sex” (69). Advertisers would have to positively reframe their advertisements aimed at African Americans and other Americans, in order to elevate their African Americans’ humanity and other Americans’ humanity to the vortex of American humanity, by respectable representational images.

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