Minorities: Representations in Advertising

Published on .

Since the earliest days of advertising, images of people from various cultural and racial groups have been used to sell goods and services. In the U.S., some ethnically derived ad characters have become ubiquitous, attaining the status of cultural icons.

The influx of immigrants into America in the late 1800s was one of the factors that played a pivotal role in increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of characters seen in ads. By 1910, the majority of the population in such major American cities as Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and New York were immigrants. As their improving economic status made them more attractive to advertisers, African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans appeared prominently in U.S. advertising.

During the country's early years, those groups were often maligned in ads. Some of the most offensive (by today's standards) of these early ads featured images of African-Americans with physical characteristics derived from the repertoire of minstrels—bright red, thick, saucer lips and bulging eyes. Asian-Americans were pictured with long, black shiny braids swallowing live rats while joyfully washing other people's clothes.

There were also instances of these groups being represented in a positive light in advertising, which often acknowledged outstanding individuals or celebrated distinctive cultures and heritages. Some minorities, however, remained conspicuously absent from advertising for many years because of such factors as age, religion or sexual orientation.

Representation of African-Americans

Historically, African-Americans have commanded the largest and most dominant presence of any minority group in advertising. From the early to mid-20th century, blacks were most often shown as subservient to whites, as embodied in such brand symbols as Uncle Ben; Rastus, the Cream of Wheat chef; and Aunt Jemima-all images with roots going back to slavery.

Those images slowly dissipated owing to the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which demanded more positive images of blacks and other minority groups in advertising as well as in other public representations. Another significant factor was the dawn of segmented marketing in the 1970s, which led to increased recognition of racial and ethnic minorities as viable markets.

An early success in multicultural advertising was a 1967 ad campaign by Doyle Dane Bernbach for Henry S. Levy & Sons of New York. In these ads Chinese-Americans, African-Americans and Native Americans declared, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's real Jewish Rye." Coca-Cola Co. and McDonald's Corp. first began advertising to Latinos in Spanish in the 1960s.

In 1963, New York Telephone ran the first ad featuring an African-American to appear in a general circulation publication—the New York Herald Tribune. The ad, from Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, showed a well-dressed black model about to enter a sidewalk telephone booth; the headline read, "A man of action knows-you get action when you telephone."

However, the value of multiethnic advertising was not fully appreciated until the 1970s. One of the most dramatic advertisements to emphasize the ideal of multiculturalism came early in the 1970s. In 1972, Eastman Kodak Co. and J. Walter Thompson Co. advertised Kodak's Pocket Instamatic camera in Ebony with an image of a black Santa Claus.

Surveys conducted during the 1990s showed that African-Americans were depicted in a little more than 11% of the advertisements in general circulation advertising; they represented 12.6% of the population at that time. Despite this near parity in numbers, however, blacks were more often shown in minor, background roles in ads rather than in major, prominent roles.

Latino images

The Chiquita Banana character (created by BBDO) was introduced in 1944 to put a personal face on the multinational United Fruit Co. She might have disappeared if it had not been for the popular song "I'm Chiquita Banana" written for her that same year. By the end of World War II, Chiquita's song had become a genuine hit. In addition to being heard in radio commercials, the song was performed by Carmen Miranda, among others, and played by dance bands, radio disc jockeys and on jukeboxes. To further promote bananas, beginning in 1947 the UFC placed Chiquita stickers on each bunch of bananas it sold.

Probably no Latino advertising figure made more of an indelible impression on mainstream, middle-class America than the corn-chip-snatching Frito Bandito. Emerging in the 1960s, this mustached cartoon figure was clad in an oversized sombrero and made a habit of stealing Fritos corn chips from unsuspecting victims. Civil rights organizations and activists, however, objected to the campaign from Foote, Cone & Belding, arguing that the image of Mexicans as "mustached thieves" perpetuated historical stereotypes. In 1970, after protests, threatened boycotts and the refusal of some TV stations to air the offensive cartoon character, Frito-Lay withdrew the campaign.

In 1998, a Spanish-speaking Chihuahua made its debut in a $60 million campaign from TBWA/Chiat/Day for the fast-food restaurant chain Taco Bell. In the spots, the dog peers out of the TV screen and seductively says, "Yo quiero Taco Bell" (I want Taco Bell).

Latinos occupy a middle ground in terms of their representation in advertising. They appear in ads less frequently than blacks but more often than Asian-Americans and American Indians. Historically, they have been pictured in mainstream advertising hosting dinner parties, washing dishes or drinking coffee.

Nike made history in 1993 by running the first Spanish-language commercial ever broadcast in prime time on a major American network. One explanation given for the comparatively low rate of representation is that Latinos are not always easily identifiable as such and therefore do not convey the strong multicultural message an advertiser may be striving to present.

Roles for Asian-Americans

One of the first appearances of Asians in advertising came through the popularity of the Yellow Kid comic strip character, created by R.F. Outcault for New York World in 1895. In 1896, Mr. Outcault licensed the Kid's use on a variety of products, including candy, cookies and two competing brands of chewing gum (one was called Grove's Yellow Kid Chewing Gum). Other names given to early products represented by Asians included: Rough on Rats Vermin Exterminator, Chinese Rat Destroyer Poison and Laugh at Mice Vermin Exterminator.

In the 1990s, an Asian stereotype emerged that was the antithesis of that of blacks and Latinos. It was an image that combined high achievement with academic excellence and good grooming to create the notion of the Asian as extremely competitive in all areas of American life.

In 2000, the return on investment in Asian media averaged 60% higher than that in general print and broadcast vehicles. Phone companies spent the most targeting Asian-Americans, followed by insurance companies and banks. In 2000, the U.S. Asian-American population was 12 million, which represented 4% of the total 275 million population.

How American Indians are seen

Native Americans, of all prominent ethnic minorities, have least often been featured in advertising. When companies adopted images of American Indians as trademarks, they were attempting to appeal to idealized notions of the group as depicted in novels of the Old West.

Powhatan, whose image became the symbol of the American Tobacco Co., was the chief of a regional confederacy of Algonquin tribes when the first English settlers landed at Jamestown. Red Cloud, the trademark used by Ingraham, Corbin & May, Chicago, for its chewing tobacco, was based on a chief of the Oglala tribe.

One of the most widely known native American brand characters is that of the food and agricultural cooperative Land O'Lakes, whose Indian maiden appeared on butter cartons with the new brand name beginning in 1924.

In 1991, a controversy arose within the Indian community when a new malt liquor dubbed Crazy Horse was introduced. The namesake for the product was the legendary Lakota chief. Community representatives objected, noting that the chief abhorred alcohol, blaming it as one substance that contributed to the downfall of his people.

Other groups

Unlike the groups mentioned previously, the gay community was not stereotyped by advertisers but was basically neglected because some advertisers feared a backlash from other consumers. The economic power of this market has been recognized by Madison Avenue, however, and it has become more commonplace to see advertisements featuring same-sex couples.

Advertisers did not acknowledge the 43 million people in the U.S. with disabilities in any significant way until the mid-1980s and early 1990s. In 1984, Foote, Cone & Belding developed advertising for Levi Strauss & Co.'s 501 jeans that included a man in a wheelchair.

McDonald's brought the issue of senior citizens in advertising to the fore with an ad that showed an elderly gentleman working at a McDonald's outlet. The advertisement depicted old and young people working together and enjoying it. There was, however, a rationale for ignoring seniors in advertising. Older consumers have been exposed to a lifetime of advertising and tend to be less persuadable than younger consumers. Many have developed strong brand loyalties and are less likely than their younger counterparts to be influenced by ads. Traditionally, the elderly have also had smaller incomes.

Toward the end of the 20th century, however, the financial stability of the senior citizens market as well as its growing numbers—as long-lived baby boomers joined the older generation—made it increasingly attractive to advertisers.

Most Popular
In this article: