February 16, 2005
Written by C.N.
Salon.com has an article that describes the growing popularity of using multicultural situations and multiracial actors in commercials and advertisements. However, as is generally the case in the advertising world, the reality of the everyday world does not always match up perfectly with stylized advertisement images:
In the idyllic world of TV commercials, Americans increasingly are living together side by side, regardless of race. The diverse images reflect a trend that has been quietly growing in the advertising industry for years: Racially mixed scenarios — families, friendships, neighborhoods and party scenes — are often used as a hip backdrop to sell products. The ads suggest America’s ethnic communities are meshing seamlessly, bonded by a love of yogurt, lipstick and athletic gear. . .
But critics say such ads gloss over persistent and complicated racial realities. Though the proportion of ethnic minorities in America is growing, experts say, more than superficial interaction between groups is still relatively unusual. Most Americans overwhelmingly live and mingle with people from their own racial background. Advertising, meanwhile, is creating a “carefully manufactured racial utopia, a narrative of colorblindness” says Charles Gallagher, a sociologist at Georgia State University in Atlanta. . .
[P]articularly since data from Census 2000 underscored the nation’s increasing ethnic complexity, ads that meld racial groups in less controversial ways have slowly become the norm. Interracial settings now are used as a matter-of-fact backdrop to sell wine and bath soap. . . “For so long, speaking to consumers of color has been absent from the landscape,” said Dana Wade, president of Spike DDB, a New York-based ad agency that uses multiracial images in most of its advertising. “It’s important to correct that.”
This subject has the potential to become quite a thorny issue. On the one hand, it is certainly true that people of color and multiracial individuals have traditionally been systematically left out of the vast majority of commercials and advertisements as companies have implicitly assumed that there entire audience of consumers was almost exclusively White. Therefore, the emergence of more multicultural images is indeed a step in the right direction.
On the other hand, as critics point out, advertisers need to recognize and understand that life is more complicated than a mixed-race group of friends having a party at the beach. This issue reminds me of how many colleges and universities, in their attempts to promote their campus as racially and culturally diverse, recruit students of color to appear in carefully staged pictures for their promotional materials when in reality, their campus and almost all their high profile campus activities (i.e., sporting events, etc.) remain virtually all-White.
So is there a middle ground here? I think it has to be a two-way process. First, hopefully consumers will understand that advertisement by design are supposed to be superficial idealized images, rather than an accurate reflection of reality. Therefore, I hope that consumers will recognize that even though they may be seeing more images of people of color in commercials and other ads, that does not necessarily mean that race relations in the U.S. are completely hunky-dory.
On the other hand, advertisers also need to understand that all with using images of people of color to promote their products, they should follow up on this effort to reflect a more accurate image of America by also promoting more people of color behind the scenes, as managers, supervisors, and executives. It’s one thing to portray a multicultural image to the public — it’s another to really mean it by institutionalizing multiculturalism behind the scenes, where it really counts.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Multiracial Commercial Images" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2005/02/multiracial-commercial-images/> ().
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