Magazine article ADWEEK

Realistic or Offensive? Advertising Leans on Stereotypes. When Do They Cross the Line?

Magazine article ADWEEK

Realistic or Offensive? Advertising Leans on Stereotypes. When Do They Cross the Line?

Article excerpt

Clicking through the TV channels at home one July evening, Howard Buford happened upon a Cadillac ad that shows people singing Led Zeppelin's "Rock & Roll" while driving. Most of the drivers are white, but one brief scene shows a middle-class black man singing along. That left Buford, who is black and makes his living analyzing African American consumers, shaking his head. "That scene was so wrong," says Buford, president of multicultural marketing agency Prime Access in New York. "It would never happen."

Across the country in San Francisco, Amazon Advertising president Millie Olson recalls a focus group of women in their 50s having trouble remaining ladylike when presented with healthcare ads from a variety of marketers showing older women taking walks, sitting around the house and engaging in other sedate activities. "'Those women all have gray hail. No way are they us.' 'They are nothing but caricatures,' " were among the nicer remarks, Olson says. In the next breath, Olson, who is 57, says she may soon begin taking arthritis medication herself and wants to see ads showing arthritis sufferers working out at the gym, not "silver-haired couples walking along the beach with a golden retriever."

These anecdotes hint at the difficulties of relying on stereotypes of consumer groups--of presenting depictions that are representative enough to resonate but not oversimplified to the point of being meaningless or insensitive. In Amazon's case, the "vehemence toward the typical stereotypes surprised us," says Olson. And yet going against stereotype, as Chemistri in Troy, Mich., does in the Cadillac ad, can bring charges of cultural blindness. As Buford says, the notion that upscale black consumers "behave just like whites"--i.e., that they prefer classic rock to hip-hop, R&B or jazz--just doesn't ring true.

The ad industry has come a long way since 1969, when complaints from Mexican Americans forced Frito-Lay's animated Frito Bandito character off the air. But groups such as African Americans, Hispanics, aging baby boomers and gays say they still see depictions that are patronizing and negative, if less blatantly than in the past. Such stereotyping may pass largely unnoticed by young, straight, white consumers, but it can damage brands in a culture that is older, browner and less heterosexual than it used to be.

Clients rarely admit that ad stereotypes damage brands, but some are quietly shifting their strategies. Anheuser-Busch, for instance, has downplayed gay-themed humor in its Bud Light ads, focusing instead on relationship quirks between men and women. A few years ago, Detroit largely abandoned the concept of showing Hispanic women in skimpy dresses dancing to salsa music.

Publicly, marketers and their agencies say their research shows the majority of consumers relate to the way these groups are portrayed in ads and that critics are overly sensitive. "Everything is too politically correct," says Jim Ferguson, chairman and chief creative officer at Temerlin McClain in Irving, Texas. "Humor is always at the expense of somebody, but the only groups you can make fun of anymore are Texans and Italians. Sure, you know when you step over the line and are being offensive. Problem is, the line is moving all the time."

Certainly, demographic changes are happening more quickly in the living rooms of America than in the creative departments of ad agencies. U.S. Census figures indicate that Hispanic, black and Asian consumers will make up about half of the customer base of most U.S. mass-market companies by 2050. At the stone time, boomers are changing the perception of older Americans, and gays and lesbians are becoming pop culture trendsetters through TV hits such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

"We aren't talking about the fringe audiences anymore," says Mike Wilke, ad consultant and executive director of Commercial Closet Association, which tracks gay-themed ads. …

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