Home Political science Dimensions of Racism in Advertising: From Slavery to the Twenty-First Century
This chapter has multiple aims. It examines advertising in the twenty-first century. Its main thesis is that the painful history of racism in advertising from the period of enslavement to contemporary time has created an enduring legacy that American society finds it difficult to overcome. In the end, this chapter provides a conceptual analysis based on existing literature of how promoting ethnic diversity within the advertising industry is not just an important regulatory issue to address historical failures, but is essential for multicultural marketing in order to characterize and portray representational images of diverse ethnicities.
Because diversity in the United States in this millennium has become very pronounced, advertising practitioners have recognized the sensitivity surrounding the meaning of messages that are contained in advertising campaigns that target different consuming audiences, including African Americans. So far, they are striving relentlessly to craft advertising campaigns that would be appealing and not offensive to the consumers, because advertisers are aware of how African Americans and other non-white Americans had been offended by the advertising messages that have racial overtones. As previously stated, African Americans, since colonial times, have been offended by those—especially members of the privileged, dominant white class—who legislate the political, economic, and cultural power in the United States. Sadly, such maltreatment of African Americans by white America has contributed largely to racial disunity and interethnic intolerance. “In early advertisements, blacks and other racial minorities, if they appeared at all, were shown only in servile, supporting parts. The common role conformed to a long-standing American cultural tradition of the black slave and servant—simple- minded, happy and devoted” (Qualter 1991: 71). Joe R. Feagin argues,
Most importantly, ethnocentric and hierarchical framing was sharply accelerated as a result of the slavery that dramatically emerged by the early 18th century. Over this era we observe the development of the highly racist imagery and racial-category framing that for centuries now have been directed by self-defined whites at Native Americans, African Americans, and numerous other non-European groups. Clearly, whites have long been framed as much more virtuous and quite superior, while the racialized “others” have long been framed as unvirtuous and inferior (2012: 15).
Feagin explains that, as of the late 17th century, this aggressive racial-superiority and racial inferiority framing has continued, and indeed occasionally gathered speed. The dominant white racial frame was developed in part to legitimize and enforce the racial hierarchization of Western capitalism’s labor force, and to give reasons why some workers and families had significant liberty and others did not. But the white racial frame early on had much wider use in asserting general white superiority over peoples and cultures, and it has functioned in that broad manner now over several centuries (Feagin 2012: 15).
In discussing the basic foundations of their theory of African American offending, James D. Unnever and Shaun L. Gabbidon conceptually argue that, their “theory of African American offending is that blacks have a unique worldview (or cosmology, axiology, aesthetics, cognitive landscape, collective memory) of the African American social order that is not shared by whites and other minorities (see Coll, Lamberty, Jenkins, McAdoo, Crnic, Wasik, & Garcia, 1996; Feagin, 2010; Gay, 2004; Harrell, 2000; Jean & Feagin, 1998; Mazama, 2001; Oliver, 2006)” (Unnever & Gabbideon 2011: 26—27).
Unnever and Gabbideon claim that African American worldview has been formed by racial dynamics largely outside of their control. Consequently, their theory assumes that African Americans, unlike any other racial group (i.e., Hispanic Americans, or Asian Americans, etc.), have a unique racial lens that informs their beliefs and behaviors particularly as they relate to the salience of race and how racism impacts their lives in America. The undergirding belief of this worldview is that race and racism matters. In other words, nearly every African American holds the view that they will experience racial prejudice and racial discrimination during their lives because they are black. Along these lines, African Americans believe that they will not be treated as fairly as other races (i.e., whites) or other ethnicities (i.e., Hispanics, Asians, etc.). Put simply, they are aware that the playing field is not level; that is, they are aware that they will be discriminated against because of their race. In sum, Unnever and Gabbideon contend that the pivotal belief that solidifies and defines the worldview shared by African Americans is that the United States has been and continues to be a systematically racist society (Unnever & Gabbideon 2011: 27). And so, a member of the mainstream culture offending blacks in ways that reinforces the blacks’ inferior position in American society is truly consistent with the superior and racist orientations of whites. Offending blacks resonates as well with how their images are controlled and utilized in advertisements by advertising firms. In this way, Mona Scott expounds in her 2012 study that,
A controlling image can be applied to any racial or ethnic group that is subordinate to the dominant racial or ethnic group. In society, the dominant group uses controlling images to control and exploit the groups that it dominates. Consider the controlling images of subordinate groups in American society: the hard-working but subservient Mexican immigrant; the Black prison inmate who is beyond redemption and has no place in society; or even the doting White suburban soccer mom. Members of the dominant group are able to define their identity and tell the story of their history and their place in it. At the same time, they also have the power to define the identities and histories of the groups they dominate. Historically, in the United States, affluent White males have created the ideologies that inform the stereotypes of Mexicans, African Americans, and other nonwhite and ethnic minorities, as well as White women (Scott: 52).
Because of these allegorical classifications of different racial and ethnic groups and their subordinate places in American society, white America has placed itself above all other racial groups in economic, social and political terms. Lewis R. Gordon contends, for example that, Africans have established a great deal of complicatedness for the contemporary society which illustrates a mark of a healthy consciousness. In other words, Africans, regardless of the structural constraints they confront in their daily lives in America and elsewhere in the world, decline to become acquiescent to attempts of human erasure (Gordon 2007). He contends further,
It is not that all black individuals subscribe to such resistance. It is simply sufficient that enough resistance has existed from the start of racialized slavery in the sixteenth century to make the anthropological question of what it is to be a human being a constantly unfolding discourse and material praxis of the modern age. For black people, the concrete formulation is the reduction of blacks to forms of inert labor, as labor without a point of view, as property. Even for many freed blacks, the institutional imposition of labor with blackness meant a constant struggle for the assertion of claimed freedom in a world that had no room for blacks to have leisure time; to be black and not laboring amounted to an illicit laziness. But even more, the plethora of lines drawn against human assertion meant a constant struggle against illegitimate being. Any category of social life becomes stained with indiscretion in black form; how does one “live” when one lacks a right to
exist (Gordon 2007: 76—77)?
Barring the above descriptive formality, and within the advertising milieu, the symbolic racist characterizations of products advertised to African Americans and other non-white consumers reflects their inferior economic, social, and political positions vis-a-vis the superior positions of whites in all aspects of American life. Overturning such disreputable products characterizations intended for African Americans and other non-white Americans, for example, Cohen maintains that “Social benefits may derive from advertising beamed at the black market with the help of black personnel. A greater understanding of blacks would insure contributions through the very aspects of advertising that have been the subject of much criticism” (Cohen 1970: 10).
Cohen argues in her work that advertising can make use of its persuasive techniques to overcome the negative ways of thinking among blacks who have suffered from rejections and loss, and offer positive reinforcement to their upward drives. Advertising can employ its communication know-how to design effective communication systems that promote positive values. These communication channels may also be used to inform blacks of opportunities available to them and provide whites with suggestions for contribution to black programs. Advertising can use its managerial expertise to create advertising programs that will help black entrepreneur to succeed, while at the same time it provides satisfactions for the black consumer. “If advertising is a strong persuader and a reflector of our culture, it has both the power and the responsibility to provide a means by which blacks can be accepted and acknowledged in the mainstream of life” (Cohen 1970: 10—11). Advertising firms must recognize that African Americans and other non-white Americans respond to advertisements which appeal to them and take their interests into account. Corporate America would have made a colossal error had they not comprehended the necessity of incorporating African Americans in advertisements; corporate America would have forfeited copious respect and business. In this vein, Karie L. Hollerbach makes a case:
Companies and advertising agencies gradually began to demonstrate what appeared to be a newly awakened social consciousness which translated to less overt stereotyping of racial minority characters in advertising and the first tenuous steps taken toward the inclusion of more diverse types of people (Hollerbach 2009: 600).
The brute fact is that advertising firms viewed African Americans as one entity, all with the same aptitude of lack of ability to purchase products and the lack of potential to contribute meaningfully to the companies. Advertising industry fail to accept the fact that African Americans possess the ability and willingness to buy products, however they simply want to be treated equally. In the words ofTerence H. Qualter,
But the gradual realization of the enormous economic potential of of the black consumer market, combined with a much more militant, and effective, black political pressure, brought about change. Blacks now appear quite often in commercials, although not in the same proportion as in the total population. Class discrimination, however, has proved a stronger barrier than race by itself. Blacks in commercials ‘are usually shown as part of a group of typical, happily consuming, middle-class Americans in some salubrious environment (Qualter 1991: 71).
Qualter expands that the reaction of advertising industry to minority movements has been to present advertisements in which minorities are integrated into the mainstream of middleclass status seekers. This gives rise to a new dilemma, frequently blacks are introduced into middle-class prosperity in both commercials and regular television programming. Evidently, the vast majority of the black populations in the industrialized societies are excluded from just such a life (71). African Americans disavow their domination or marginalization by the advertising industry; rather, they want to become an integral part of it and to lessen existing stereotypes and misconceptions about them. If advertising firms limit opportunities for African Americans, they are conveying subliminal messages to their African American and other non-white American consumers. Consumers focus on products that are advertised, but advertising agencies always portray much more than they appeal products in their advertisements. For example, when the white characters are flashy and wealthy and the African American characters are hardly illustrated or are depicted in a stereotypical manner, consumers can pick up on this, whether resolutely or not (Hollerbach 2009). Such depictions of African Americans in particular and other non-white Americans in general in advertising, resonate into existing degrading stereotypes. As Julia M. Bristor et al assert,
Media can communicate racial prejudice in number of ways, including omission, stereotyping, and showing African Americans in a disproportionate number of “bad” or low status roles. Such portrayals can reveal subtle assumption and attitudes about minorities. Precisely because assumptions and attitudes are frequently neither consciously articulated nor intentional, identifying and questioning them is a necessary step towards redressing race-based inequalities (Bristor et al. 1995: 49).
Among much else, marketers must be aware of how information on individual characteristics affects the sending, receiving, and processing of communication is critical for them to communicate and provide services for consumers in the not distant future in an increasingly diverse marketplace. Advertising has also been accredited with creating higher levels of materialism and consumption in society, as well as with encouraging people to seek happiness from products as opposed to family and friends. Advertising “has also been charged with perpetuating stereotypes, particularly for minority groups” (Lee and La Ferle 2004: 4). Given America’s diversity and the purchasing power of its multicultural and multiracial populations, marketers and advertising firms must become conscious of their needs and sensitivities, in order to earn their business. Arguably, Wei-Na Lee, Jerome D. Williams, and Carrie La Ferle elucidate that,
Reports from the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia indicate that African Americans accounted for $646 billion in buying power in 2002, followed by Hispanic Americans at $581 billion and Asian Americans at $296 billion (Gardyn & Fetto, 2003). These numbers have more than doubled in size from those reported across the three groups in 1990 (Raymond, 2001). Furthermore, although the size of the White non-Hispanic population is decreasing and is expected to drop from approximately 70% of the population today to close to 50% by 2050 (Gardyn & Fetto, 2003; U.S. Census, 2000). In contrast, the Hispanic population is estimated to grow and account for 20% of the population by 2020 (U.S. Census, 2000). Asian Americans are also predicted to continue growing and to account for just over 5% of the U.S. population by 2010 (U.S. Census, 2000) (Lee, Williams, & La Ferle 2004: 5).
The second half of the twentieth century saw the evolution of a research that assesses the images of ethnic minorities, including African Americans in advertising. There are two salient reasons for the advertising industry to take undying interests in assessing the images of ethnic minorities in advertising. First, marketers, because of financial reasons, would like to understand and adequately represent the various consumer groups. Second, considering that advertising is a form of social communication, advertising firms and marketers want to present what is familiar so that consumers can embrace their messages and they can interact with each other (Bush, Smith, & Martin 1999 as cited in Lee, Williams, & La Ferle 2004: 6, 7). Contrary to these core assessments of how ethnic minority consumer groups perceive their images and receive and utilize messages about products that are advertised in the communications media, advertising firms design advertisements that try to define the positions and interests of ethnic minority groups as sub-standardized as compared to the positions and interests of members of mainstream America. Such characterizations of stereotypical advertisements that are directed at African Americans and other minority racial groups contradict the view that the United States is a melting pot. “The United States has been called a melting pot, referring to people of different races, cultures, and religions that have come to blend and assimilate into one nation, often by shedding their traditional cultural identities” (Orndoff 2003; Tharp 2001 as cited in Williams, Lee, & Haugtvedt 2004: 7).
On the one hand, it is believed that the melting pot has muffled diversity (Carr—Ruffino, 1996) and for possessing numerous negative implications for people who have attempted to assimilate and either were not accepted or who ended being ashamed of their heritage (Simmons, Vasquez, & Harris 1993 as cited in Lee, Williams, & La Ferle 2004: 7). Arguably, diversity in the present- day United States means the total inclusion of all peoples, including “all citizens,
White, Black, old, young, Christian, Muslim, gay, heterosexual, and so on. Advertisers as well as other major institutions in society must recognize that diversity includes everyone” (Williams, Lee, & Haugtvedt 2004: 8).
In the overall context of the prevailing discourse that advertising firms and other institutions in the United should acknowledge that diversity must incorporate multicultural, multiracial, and diverse religious groups, diverse political and social organizations, and ideological orientations into their fold; therefore, it can be argued that the appreciation and sensitization of these diverse groups and organizations must become a matter of centrality. Consumers usually buy goods when they recognized that advertising campaigns acknowledge their identity as members of a given racial and social group, because as Williams, Lee, and Haugtvedt (2004: 14) have stated, “advertising becomes an important role for legitimizing and publicizing the existence of target groups.” Like this,
Advertising influences identity formation and identity enhancement in two important ways. First, advertising acknowledges individuals by rendering them identifiable and intelligible in the mass media. Second, advertising recognizes consumers as members of a discernible social group, with which they identify. Therefore, advertising may function to bring the marginalized population groups into public being (Lee & Callcott 1994 as cited in Williams, Lee, & Haugtvedt 2004: 14).
In America in this millennium, diversity in advertising can be promoted by advertising firms and those that wield the political, cultural and economic power by identifying and respecting the ethnic, racial, and cultural spaces of multiracial groups. All things being equal, if peoples from diverse ethnic and racial persuasions in the United States are recognized and communicated to in a respectable manner as integral members of multiracial and multicultural America, a holistic American humanity will be appropriated. Such efforts will reduce the transmission of prejudice, institutionalized racism and bigotry as well as the stereotypical portrayal of images of African Americans and other non-white groups in advertising.
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