Representations of Race in Television Commercials: A Content Analysis of Prime-Time Advertising

By Mastro, Dana E.; Stern, Susannah R. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Representations of Race in Television Commercials: A Content Analysis of Prime-Time Advertising


Mastro, Dana E., Stern, Susannah R., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


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Research from the U.S. Department of Commerce demonstrates that, collectively, the annual purchasing power of racial/ethnic minorities constitutes over 20% of the nation's total consumer spending and is rising at a rate faster than that of the non-minority population (MBDA, 2000). Together with rapidly changing demographics, these figures have prompted advertisers to aggressively tap into the extensive minority market (Holland & Gentry, 1999). While such attempts represent tremendous financial opportunities for the ad industry, they are not without consequence for consumers. In fact, researchers argue that the sheer pervasiveness of advertising may enhance its potential to influence television viewers (Stern, 1999). In order to identify the possible implications of advertising exposure on minorities, this content analysis utilizes a social cognitive perspective in its evaluation of portrayals of Blacks (African Americans), Asian Americans, Latinos, and Whites in current prime-time television commercials. Because these depictions have traditionally been questionable in nature (Greenberg, Mastro, & Brand, 2002), these groups were isolated for examination. Although content analyses cannot offer causal evidence, the content features derived from these analyses are integral to the development of comprehensive media effects studies (Shoemaker & Reese, 1996).

Social cognitive theory (SCT) suggests that under certain conditions, such as the repeated, simple, and rewarded messages that typify television ads, viewers can and do learn from what they see in the media (Bandura, 1986; Bandura, 2002). Although not every learned behavior is emulated, SCT submits (and empirical research supports) that the manner in which images are presented on television influences how viewers interpret and respond to the modeled acts (Bandura, 2002). One contextual feature in particular that may be considerably influential for audience members exposed to television commercials is the extent to which the models are believed to be similar to self. The character's race/ethnicity has been found to be an especially salient indicator of this perceived similarity (Jose & Brewer, 1984) as evidenced in research indicating that Black viewers prefer ads (Williams, Qualls, & Grier, 1995) and programming featuring Blacks (Nielsen Media Research, 1998), and that Latinos favor Spanish-language programs. Additionally, studies reveal that children are more likely to report identifying with and wanting to be like media characters of their own racial/ethnic background (Greenberg & Atkin, 1982). Given that Blacks and Latinos also have been found to be among the heaviest television consumers (Nielsen Media Research, 1998), examining how often and in what context characters from different racial/ethnic groups are depicted in commercials becomes consequential.

Commercial Images

Typically, researchers interested in evaluating images in advertising have focused on three primary areas: (1) frequencies, (2) selective presentation, and (3) presentation quality.

Frequencies. Examining numeric representation is meaningful as presence in the media is seen as an indication of social relevance in larger society (Dorr, 1982). Despite their actual proportions in the population, racial/ethnic minorities have been chronically underrepresented in television commercials (Greenberg et al., 2002). This finding has been supported by longitudinal (Coltrane & Messineo, 2000) and cross-sectional studies of television advertising (Wilkes & Valencia, 1989). Two exceptions include Licata and Biswas' (1993) and Taylor and Stern's (1997) results revealing elevated occurrences of Black portrayals in television ads (finding Blacks in 35% and 31.8% of ads, respectively). Further, Taylor and Stern (1997) found Asian Americans to be depicted in 8.4% of commercials, Latinos in 8.5% of ads, and Whites in nearly every advertisement (98%). …

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