Re: race in commercials

Jane W. Gibson (jwgc@KUHUB.CC.UKANS.EDU)
Thu, 7 Dec 1995 08:57:11 -0600

Parm Grewal writes regarding social diversity in advertising imagery:

>I have also been having thoughts about this, it seems commendable(sp?) on
>one level to have a multicultural representation in the media, however I
>am not sure of the multiculturalism behind the doors. That is to say,
>those in charge of the decisions rarely seem to be of a variety of
>nations, there seems to be an agenda to exploit the various levels for
>profit which is not distributed across the board.

Of course the agenda is to exploit the various levels for profit. That's
what advertising is for and that is the overt message (primary discourse):
YOU (reflected) buy the whatever we're selling.

The interesting elements are the definition of the YOU, the context of the
YOU, the relationship of the YOU to others, and the nature of that
relationship. Here we find subtexts (aka secondary discourses) such as
what one ought to look like, with whom one ought to interact, and in what
ways. I hold the view that the image both reflects and shapes cultural
values and norms in which case multicultural associations please me.

Yet I also share Parm Grewal's distaste for commodification of social
relationships and reductions to idealized types. "It's ok to associate
with this kind of person" also bears the message that it might not be ok to
associate with another kind: note American teen magazines' unchallenged
depiction of same social group (phenotyped not simply by race/ethnic
categories, but by idealized body types and able-to-consume class), hetero
associations to the exclusion of alternatives, all in the interest of
selling cosmetics, clothes, music, and electronics with heterosex.

A democratic civilization will
save itself only if it makes the
language of the image into a
stimulus for critical reflection
-not an invitation for hypnosis.
--Umberto Eco.

Jane Gibson
Department of Anthropology
University of Kansas