Minorities in Advertising

The manner in which minorities are represented in advertising has long held interest for those involved in the study of communication. That interest revolves around concerns that minorities may be underrepresented in advertising. Perhaps it does not occur to white advertisers to make sure that minorities are represented in advertising messages. Or have marketers decided that minority audiences are less important as consumers or perhaps even marginal in terms of their importance or contribution to society?

It appears that this last idea is somewhat a self-fulfilling prophecy. When minorities are confronted to an overwhelming degree with white models in advertisements, they feel less important or marginal. Lowered self-esteem as a response to underrepresentation in advertisements appears to have the strongest impact on minority children.

However, it appears that the earliest investigations into minority representation in advertising focused only on mainstream media. The results of such research may be skewed, since it ignores the media that are popular with minorities. Current research on the topic compares the representation of minorities in both types of media: mainstream media, and media popular with specific minorities.

Once researchers took a close look at media geared toward specific minorities, they discovered that the highest representation of a given minority could be found in media popular with that particular minority. At the same time, models in mainstream media advertising were predominantly white. Where mainstream media did use minority models in advertising, they were most often African American, with the lowest representation among Asian Americans.

Magazines targeting specific minorities had an underrepresentation of other minorities in advertisements. However, magazines targeting Asian Americans had the highest representation of African American models of the minority-specific publications studied, while magazines geared to the Hispanic community had the least representation by African America models.

Social-cognitive theory tells us that people learn how to behave by watching how others behave and also through random life experiences. While models for behavior can be found in the immediate environment, in modern society, a great deal of what people learn about values and appropriate behavior comes from living in an environment saturated by the mass media. Since advertisers fund the mass media, a large portion of its content is devoted to advertising messages.

Advertising is inherently repetitive. The viewer sees actors portraying the same activities on numerous occasions and sees too, that the characters played by the actors receive rewards for these activities. The idea of advertising is to motivate viewers to imitate the behaviors as shown in the advertisements, which should induce them to buy the product. However, advertising is always geared toward a particular market, and not every activity portrayed in an advertisement will be relevant to all audiences. Viewers are likely to pay more attention to advertisements where there are models that resemble themselves by dint of gender or race, for instance.

It is believed that since minorities by definition represent a smaller sector of society, they are always conscious of their race or ethnicity. In social-cognitive theory, this is called the "distinctiveness theory." As such, in cases where there is underrepresentation of a minority in mainstream media, advertising messages will have little impact on minority viewers. Minorities will fail to find a reflection of themselves and their identity within these messages. Worse yet, minorities will begin to feel they are not important, as white actor after white actor is portrayed upon the screen.

This misrepresentation, and the message it conveys that minorities have a lower societal standing, will induce members of minorities to turn to other types of media that are geared to their own race or ethnicity. Where minorities are the target audience for advertising, they are more likely to find themselves represented in advertising messages. Seeing themselves thus reflected may allow them to regain a measure of self-esteem.

Another reason for underrepresentation of minorities in advertising messages is that most advertisers are white. White advertisers may automatically choose white actors for advertisements since they see their own (white) characteristics reflected in a white actor's performance.

By studying social-cognitive theory and becoming aware of the underrepresentation of minorities, advertisers might begin to include more minorities in mainstream media advertising messages. As more minorities are represented in the media, the self-esteem of these smaller, but still very significant, sectors will gradually rise. Minorities will come to feel more a part of society and better about themselves. By better representing minorities in their messages, advertisers stand to gain by enlarging the target markets for their products.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
Marilyn Kern-Foxworth.
Praeger, 1994
Minorities in Children's Television Commercials: New, Improved, and Stereotyped
Bang, Hae-Kyong; Reece, Bonnie B.
The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Vol. 37, No. 1, Summer 2003
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising
Katherine Toland Frith.
Peter Lang, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "As Soft as Straight Gets: African American Women and Mainstream Beauty Standards in Haircare Advertising"
Representations of Race in Television Commercials: A Content Analysis of Prime-Time Advertising
Mastro, Dana E.; Stern, Susannah R.
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Vol. 47, No. 4, December 2003
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
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