In advertising, an archetype is an artificial statistical construction in human form, an individual personification or representation drawn from research and observation of a group. The group can be defined by age, income, gender, race, education, ethnicity, nationality, profession or any number of other characteristics. The resulting archetype is a distillation of shared characteristics, attitudes and behaviors that correlate statistically to the given group. The word "archetype" carries no particular connotation, positive or negative, and is a commonly used term among market researchers.
"Stereotype," however, which carries substantially the same meaning, has come to have highly prejudicial and negative connotations, implying unfair social bias or bigotry against individuals based on the association and application of group profiles.
To use an archetype or stereotype to characterize an individual is often called "profiling" and can be based on racial, ethnic, economic or other benchmark characteristics. Although it is a controversial practice when institutionalized in formal procedures, such "profiles" are a routine element of all first impressions.
Archetypes and stereotypes are helpful to major advertisers because most advertisers seek to address mass markets. But their usefulness also depends on how valid and acceptable a given stereotype is in the wider social context. Thus, while scientific research may support a given stereotype with mathematically impartial evidence, it is useful to the advertiser only if it conforms to generally accepted perceptions based on non-scientific observation and judgments accrued informally through social contact.
Because advertisers typically have limited time and space to spell out their message, they rely on the shorthand of stereotypes, characters who instantly define themselves to viewers in familiar ways that conform to social assumptions and relate to the product. For this reason, American advertisers for years resorted to the aproned housewife, the authoritative doctor, the powerful executive, the black maid, the Irish policeman—all stereotypical images, any one of which might properly frame a product without calling attention to itself.
By the same token, similar stereotypical representations came to personify people from distant lands: the French, the English, the Italian, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Mexican and the Russian. Based on limited data, ethnic stereotypes provide a representational way in which people may perceive others they will never likely meet.
Through much of the 20th century, radio, motion pictures and TV have often been the most influential primary sources and distributors of social stereotypes. Compared to advertising, these communication channels have more time to create full-blown characterizations and more power and technology to drive them into wide circulation.
Although stereotypes often linger long into obsolescence in the popular culture, they also evolve in ways that make them surprisingly self-adjusting and correcting. This evolution occurs even more rapidly today, when so many channels of communication can bring so many points of view and images to bear so quickly. For example, in the 1940s African-American life was represented in only one program with weekly access to the nation through network radio, "Amos 'n' Andy." Most other Negro characterizations on radio and film were limited to maids and sleeping-car porters. This dominant archetype of the period represented an occupational reality of black Americans.
In the 1960s, the situation began to change as the Civil Rights movement opened new avenues to blacks and the social realities on which their stereotypes were based began to shift. These new opportunities were first reflected in the evolving imagery of TV programming. Once it became safe for Robert Culp and Bill Cosby to function as equals on the TV show "I Spy," it soon became safe for advertisers to routinely picture white and black people together in their commercials.
By the 1990s, the dominant black stereotype had evolved from the submissive, superstitious houseboy through the angry Black Power radical of the 1970s to the ultra cool "gangsta" rapper of the urban ghetto. By the beginning of the 21st century, there were many black archetypes with no one of them monopolizing perceptions.
Representations of women
Not all groups sensitive to their advertising portrayals are minorities. The representation of women in advertising has expanded from the single pervasive model of wife and mother consumed with concern for dirty collars and scuffed floors to a range of representations spanning the professions. Like the evolution of other stereotypes, the images of women have evolved with the changing social and occupational realities.
Advertising has picked up on these changes more quickly perhaps than it has on previous social shifts because the profession itself saw the proliferation of women in top management positions in the last decade or so of the 20th century. With Rochelle "Shelly" Lazarus as CEO of Ogilvy & Mather and Charlotte Beers as chairman (1999-2001) of J. Walter Thompson Co., advertising had two powerful women heading two of the most important agencies.
More significant, however, was the increasing number of women moving into middle-management levels on the creative and account sides of the advertising business.