Teaching Cultural Competence in Print Advertising Postmodern Ads and Multi-Race Clothing Models

By Howkins, Mary Ball | Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Teaching Cultural Competence in Print Advertising Postmodern Ads and Multi-Race Clothing Models


Howkins, Mary Ball, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge


Media literacy is essential in this contemporary culture where commercial visual images accost us daily in newspapers and newspaper inserts, magazines, on the internet, book covers, travel brochures, etc. The list is extensive in this increasingly visually based culture. Advertising culture may, in fact, be the one unifying culture that binds together our diversity as a North American people. In order to negotiate the seduction of advertising, students must be able to recognize how the seduction works to be free of its potentially undermining influence. We recognize advertising imagery as propaganda for selling commodities but our students are less apt to recognize that it also reenacts the symbolic rituals of our postmodern society by implying the underlying structures of social stratification and power relations, of class, race, ethnicity, gender, language, sexual orientation, religion, age, and ability by using subtle visual tools. (1)

Advertising makes use of various visual tools, a large portion of them derived from the tradition of fine arts. Painters and sculptors have used these same visual tools for centuries, for structuring arresting, even shockingly graphic images, for assigning rank or status to human figures via size, posture, lighting and spatial placement, and for specifying a human figure's social relation to the viewer. As we viewers of advertisements have grown more sophisticated over the last decades, and as advertisements have become more costly to produce, advertisers look to provoke a quick emotional response from us to promote name brand recognition. Some ad campaigns have become so recognizable that they have shed almost all reference to a particular product and instead have delivered a catchy or "sexy" narrative to hook us in. (2)

Benetton's "All colors of the World" and then "United Colors of Benetton" advertising campaigns, beginning in the mid 1980s and early 1990s respectively, were pioneers in such a "productless" campaign. The company fostered such a strong link between shocking graphic imagery and its corporate products that in some ads no product was even visible in the margin. (3) In addition, the same campaign reenacted social rituals potentially demeaning to marginalized groups. This occurred, for example, in an ad showing a close-up of a pair of male buttocks with the letters "H.I.V." affixed and with no specific Benetton clothing revealed even in the margins of the photographic field. (4) In response to the ad some viewers resented what they perceived as an erroneous and harmful association of the disease specifically and solely with a gay man and with gay culture. unfortunately, for other viewers the association may have rung true, in keeping with that association of gay men and the origin and spread of the disease, and a divine justice wielded for a "dissolute, sinful life," despite the lack of factual accuracy in the assumed link. Meanwhile, the Benetton Corporation benefited by earning some coveted name recognition in a marketing campaign that deliberately contrived ambiguity of association for corporate gain. Benetton became the fourth largest corporation in Italy as a result of "The united Colors of Benetton" campaign. (5)

Other Benetton ads in the "United Colors of Benetton" campaign featured ambiguous interactions between Caucasians and persons of color. In one ad a fulsome black woman suckles a tiny white child, opening the image to interpretation as a reenactment of the conditions of slavery in 18th and 19th century North America. (6) The ad depends for its effect on the viewer's familiarity with the history of slavery in apprehending the purposeful presentation of a politically charged staging of the two people. In another campaign ad two children, one white and one black, face the viewer with hair arrangements that mimic an angel and a devil. (7) The white child is, of course, angelic while the black child is cast as the devil. So unfolds a racially based and reprehensible contrast of good and evil.

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Teaching Cultural Competence in Print Advertising Postmodern Ads and Multi-Race Clothing Models
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