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

Dimensionality of Diversity in Advertising in the 21st Century

Advertising in the twenty-first century sums up the concept of advertising democracy as long as the representational images of African Americans and other non-white Americans are vividly and equally depicted in it, because these groups also constitute, like white Americans, active consumers. What is more, the U.S. population looks remarkably different in the twenty-first century, considering the higher percentages of non-white Americans, including Hispanics and African Americans, among others. See Table 1 which characterizes racial and ethnic groups in the United States.

TABLE 1 Racial and Ethnic Groups in the United States


Number in Thousands

Percentage of Total Population


Whites (non-Hispanic)



Blacks/African Americans



Native Americans, Alaskan Natives



Asian Americans









Asian Indians












Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians, other Asian Americans




White ancestry (single or mixed, non-Hispanic)



















Scottish and Scotch-Irish






Hispanics (or Latinos)



Mexican Americans



Puerto Ricans












Continued on next page

TABLE 1 (Continued)

ETHNIC GROUPS (continued)

Hispanics (or Latinos) (continued)




Other Hispanics





Note: All data for 2009 except three racial groups listed at top, Hispanic total and subgroups, and total population figure, which are for 2010. Percentages do not total 100 percent, and subheads do not add up to totals in major heads because of overlap between groups (e.g., Polish American Jews or people of mixed ancestry such as Irish and Italian).

Sources: 2009 data from American Community Survey 2010: Tables B03001, C04006; 2010 data from Davidson and Pyle 2011: 117;Ennis et al. 2011; Humes et al. 2011; Richard T. Schaefer 2012. Racial and Ethnic Groups Thirteenth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

African American and other minority groups in the United States make up the subordinate groups. According to Schaefer (2010), this subordinate group has the following characteristics: “unequal treatment, distinguishing physical or cultural traits, involuntary membership, awareness of subordination, and in-group marriage” (7). Aware of these characteristics that are attributable to subordinate groups, advertising agencies are striving their best to diversify their advertising campaigns.

To recollect an historical note, African Americans, because of their racial background, have been marginalized in America since slavery. Herbert Blummer (1958 as cited in Johnson, Rush & Feagin 2000: 99) clarify “that racial prejudice and stereotyping are more than a matter of negative feelings possessed by members of one group for another, for they are rooted in power relations and group positions.” Blummer illuminates that a high priority in dominant groups is to create ideologies and images that legitimate privilege and rationalize their discriminatory behavior. Clearly, dominated groups do not have the same power to set the terms of categorization, and are viewed by those who dominate in terms of stereotypical representations (Moscovici 1981). The biological and social myths about African Americans and other people of color make negative racist stereotypes ready tools for maintaining status and privilege, as in the account above. The racialized thinking and emotions of the white-racist system are much more than a matter of how whites view people of color. They are also about — and perhaps are principally about—how whites see themselves as individuals and a racial group (Gallagher 1999). They view themselves as virtuous, highly civilized, racially superior, hardworking, intelligent, and freedom-loving, thereby justifying their privilege and power. Out-groups of color are viewed as less than virtuous, even as sub-human, and thus deserving of their many social disadvantages. Such structural appropriation of whiteness has been prevalent in the United States from colonial times to the present-day (Johnson et al. 2000: 99).

Because of this, “advertising has developed into a constant, sometimes annoying, element in their lives. Advertising has affected our buying habits, altered our language, changed our fashions, and always strived to attract our attention. It has also woven its way into the culture not only of Americans but of consumers in virtually every country of the world” (Cappo 2003: 212). By the same token, marketing implications for the diverse minority racial groups as well as African Americans will undoubtedly be taken seriously by advertising firms and marketers. Even the fundamental question of defining African immigrant groups and addressing gender inequality and other related issues in advertising campaigns will be addressed by advertising firms and marketers in order to bring about advertising democracy. As Jamie Snider, Ronald Paul Hill, and Diane Martin noted in the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) construct they developed, “The ethical component is their responsibility to respect the rights of others and to meet the obligations placed on them by society that ensure these rights,” (Snider, Hill, & Martin 2003: 176).

In this millennium, the United States has become a multiracial and multiethnic society; as a result, advertising agencies are specially addressing multiracial consumers’ interests and appealing to their values. Although previously, the values and interests of multiracial consumers, including African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and other Americans of color were largely ignored or not always adequately portrayed in advertising campaigns. For example, the Hispanic population in the United States is a quickly growing demographic—estimated at about 16.3% of the total population, in spite of that, advertising firms have poorly portrayed the Hispanic culture and traditions (Lind 2012: 172; Schaefer 2012: 5; & U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). This 16.3% “is, in fact, a gold-mine of barely tapped potential consumers whom many advertising agencies are beginning to target. Because of such a large percentage, we can assume that the goal of any advertising agency is to maximize profitably” (Lind 2012: 172; Schaefer 2012: 5).

Lind asserts that, in order to make the most profit, advertising firms may perhaps examine data about the particular consumers and ask the following questions: “What is important to a Hispanic family? To a Hispanic individual? What do Hispanics eat? Wear? What are the most important tenets in Hispanic culture? What types of television, radio, and Web sites do Hispanics turn to?” (Lind 2012: 172). She said that when the former questions have been proffered, they then recognize and consider some of the main media outlets for advertising, including “television, the Internet, radio, and print. Specific methods may then be devised for compiling data which in turn can help construct specific advertisements tar?geting Hispanics” (Lind 2012: 172—173). If we cautiously examined the Hispan- ic-targeted advertising strategies, we can safely argue that advertising campaigns targeting Hispanics have been stereotypical and offensive. According to Lind,

In fact, during the Great Depression, campaigns were launched by states that resulted in the deportation and forced repatriation of Mexicans back to their native lands. A name synonymous with anti-Hispanic fervor during this era was Harry J. Anslinger, who said,

“.. .the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races” (Lurigio, Rabinowitz, & Lenik, 2009). This marketing diatribe was directed toward people of color: African Americans, Asians, and especially Hispanics from Mexico. This anti-Hispanic campaign stated that Mexicans would bring cannabis across the border and “infect” white women with their satanic drug (Yaroschuk, 2000) (Lind 2012: 174).

Advertising can be used for both negative and positive promotion as illustrated in this early anti-Hispanic advertising above. Diversity and multiculturalism were not regarded as top priority by the advertising industry. In present-day America, advertising campaigns appeal to diverse audiences for products from firms such as McDonalds, Taco Bell, State Farm, and Microsoft. In point of fact, many television commercials use one tenet of the Hispanics’ triptych: language. Let us consider this example, in the State Farm ad titled “Barista,” a Hispanic man uses the term “la familia.” Other examples include the “I’m loving it” campaign by McDonald’s (family and food), the “Yo quiero Taco Bell?” commercials (language and food), and some advertising advice given out by Microsoft (2009) aimed at helping companies hoping to target Latinos/Hispanics (Lind 2012: 174—175).

Diversity is unique in advertising in view of the general characteristics of the current diverse U.S. population. This is to argue, in the words of Geraldine Fennell and Joel Saegert that, “the recent perception of increasing numbers and prominence of individuals from non-Caucasian backgrounds and of enhanced readiness, compared with earlier times, of individuals to seek recognition for respects in which they view themselves as different from others” (Fennell & Saegert 2004: 302). Marketers and advertising firms should identify and appreciate the character of diversity in a given market, in order to allow them to communicate effectively to the target audience about the importance of a product. Their mode of communicating to the target audience—diverse population—should be “first, using special-interest rather than general media; second, employing ethnically diverse actors or settings in ads; and third, using language other than English in marketing communications” (Fennell & Saegert 2004: 310). By using these approaches in communicating a product’s advertisement to the diverse population, including African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and other Americans, advertising agencies will be able to make a sale.


In this chapter, I have examined diversity in advertising in the twenty-first century. To accomplish this, I explored the history of racism in advertising. As its main thesis, I accentuated that the painful history of racism in advertising from the period of enslavement to the present-day, has created an enduring legacy that American society finds it difficult to overcome. I also provided a conceptual analysis of the theme 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. I concluded by looking at the dimensionality of diversity in advertising and its impact on the marketing of brands to a diverse-targeted audience in this millennium.

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