Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Minorities in Children's Television Commercials: New, Improved, and Stereotyped

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Minorities in Children's Television Commercials: New, Improved, and Stereotyped

Article excerpt

Mass media is one means by which consumers learn how to behave as consumers. Consumers' beliefs about minorities as consumers are also influenced by mass media, and the impact is likely highest among young children. A content analysis of 813 commercials in children's television programming reveals that while Caucasians continue to be the predominant models in terms of numbers and in the types of roles they play, the numerical representation of minorities, especially Blacks, has improved. However, the study found that minorities are more likely than Caucasians to have minor roles and to be portrayed in certain product categories, settings, and relationships. Societal impacts and implications for minority consumers are discussed.


Advertising bombards children in America. The average child in the U.S. may see more than 20,000 commercials per year in addition to some television programs that are actually hour-long commercials for toys and games (Murray and Lonnborg 1995). American children aged 2 through 11 watch television for 19 hours and 40 minutes per week (Nielsen Media Research 2000). Watching television is what children do most when they are not sleeping, and, more significantly, they often watch unaccompanied by adults. Thus, although other socialization agents such as schools, peers, or parents influence children's cognitive development, television, including commercials, has become an important part of the socialization process (Graves 1982, Mangleburg, Grewal, and Bristol 1997).

By transmitting selective images and ideas, television commercials not only teach young consumers to buy and consume certain products, but they also teach children to accept certain beliefs and values. Thus, what children think of various ethnic minorities such as Blacks, Hispanics, or Asian Americans is often influenced by what they see on television programs and advertising (Shrum, Wyer, and O'Guinn 1998). According to social learning theory, people learn certain beliefs and behaviors based on their observation of other people's behaviors (Bandura 1971). Thus, if a television commercial shows a bright Black student being praised for outstanding academic performance after he or she eats a Carnation breakfast bar, young viewers, particularly children of color, may believe that they can perform as well as the model in the ad if they have the breakfast bar.

Likewise, cultivation theory suggests that constant exposures to a specific image of an object can lead to distorted beliefs about the object (Gerbner 1980). Thus, if children are repeatedly exposed to certain portrayals of an ethnic group, they may develop corresponding beliefs about the group. For instance, if children consistently see Asian Americans playing roles of technicians or mathematicians on television, they may learn to believe that Asian Americans are smart people (Taylor and Stern 1997). This impact can be even greater if the children live without much meaningful contact with ethnic groups other than their own (DeFleur and DeFleur 1967).

The idea that youngsters view television as more than an entertainment vehicle is supported by a recent national poll reported by Children Now, a nonpartisan national children's advocacy group. This organization monitors media content to bring attention to issues such as diversity or violence portrayed in the media. In 1998, Children Now surveyed 1,200 children aged 10 to 17, with equal representation of the four largest ethnic groups--Caucasians, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asian Americans. According to the poll results, children overwhelmingly felt that it was important for them to see people of their own race on television because it sends a message that they matter. Not surprisingly this belief was expressed even more strongly by children of color (82% of Blacks, 79% of Asian Americans, and 78% of Hispanics compared to 67% of Caucasians). At the same time, children of all races indicated a belief that minority groups were more likely to be negatively portrayed than Caucasians. …

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