It wasn’t an isolated incident. For an industry that invests so much in market research to better under- stand its target customers, advertising still incorporates a lot of stereotypes, including racial ones.
Offensive? Of course. Yet the same ads that offend some people may provoke, amuse, or entertain others. “Hip-Hop,” for example, the name of a 2010 Duncan Hines frosting ad, featured animated cupcakes singing and dancing. While some people associated it with the blackface minstrel shows of the slave era, others missed any possible historical context and found it funny or cute.
These sorts of ads get noticed more than ever in today’s culture of social media sharing. But can they actually drive sales?
It’s a question of critical importance to advertisers, but one that largely has been overlooked, says Associate Professor Sonya Grier.
Grier has researched multiple topics related to race in the marketplace, from target marketing to consumer health and obesity. But when it comes to controversial ads that play on stereotypes, she says they are typically noticed for their social impact rather than their commercial effect.
Back to Mountain Dew: Is it possible that a company could actually sell more of its product as a result of the outrage it generated, or does the public condemnation necessarily turn off consumers?
Grier sought the answers.
OUTRAGE OR INDIFFERENCE?
She collaborated with Guillaume Johnson, a researcher at the University of Paris, to test consumer response to ads containing common racial stereotypes. Working with a test group in South Africa, they first identified common local stereotypes and then developed and tested two ads.
One featured a young, black, female domestic worker—a very common stereotype in that country. The other, designed to be the counterstereotyped ad, featured a young black woman dressed in jeans.
Both ads were then inserted into magazines and distributed to a group of university students, who were told they were participating in a study on people’s responses to the media. Because the authors were interested in comparing the reactions of people who identified with the group in the ad alongside those of nonstereotyped viewers, they tested the ad on both black and white students and asked them how the ads made them feel.
They found that the most common reaction among the white, or nonstereotyped, group was not offense or amusement but rather ambivalence. In other words, most people simply did not notice the reference to a stereotype significantly enough to make any difference in their behavior.
On the other hand, “stereotyped” viewers clearly took note.
“Stereotyped viewers experienced offense and negative ad processing, whereas nonstereotyped viewers experienced ambivalence and failed to be entertained in the ad,” the researchers explained.
Because such ads have what the authors called “uncertain positive consequences” for both stereotyped and nonstereotyped viewers, the professors suggest that businesses “seriously consider” whether to use stereotyped portrayals in an ad.
“While seemingly obvious, continual market- place controversies suggest this message is not well known,” they wrote.
Grier became interested in these topics early in her academic career. She recalls picking up a colleague, Professor Jerome Williams, for a talk at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois. As she drove up to the hotel where Williams was waiting at the door in suit and coat, she saw a woman park, hurriedly get out of her car, and hand him her keys, having mistaken him for the valet.
As Grier walked up to him, he asked, “Should we take this lady’s car instead of yours?” They both laughed. Williams used the anecdote that day to start his talk on racial stereotypes, and “it certainly had an effect on me,” Grier remembered.
“People say, ‘Oh, these things are changing,’ but you see stereotypical ads all the time,” she said. “One reason they are used so frequently is that stereotypes serve an economizing function. They let you say a lot with a little by playing into what people already believe.”
DIVERSITY GROWS, STEREOTYPES PERSIST
Her co-author Johnson, who spent six years in South Africa, agrees that issues of race are as relevant as ever, even as the world has become more diverse.
“As society has evolved, we have not really moved away from racial stereotypes; we have just created new ones. Biracial and postracial just represents the creation of new categories,” he noted.
In addition to avoiding known stereotypes, the authors say advertisers can take some steps to avoid using unintended stereotypes.
They recommend pretesting ads not only on target markets, but also on the group that is represented in the ad—and potentially consulting with community groups and leaders.
For example, Droga5, the ad agency for a recent Athenos yogurt ad campaign in the US, consulted with members of the Greek community on the somewhat stereotypical image of the Greek grandmother featured in the ads. Clearly, Athenos’s target audience was much broader, but its research helped the company avoid unintentionally offending anyone.
Beyond specific campaigns, ad agencies might also benefit from broadening their hiring practices. In their paper, Grier and Johnson cited data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics showing minimal racial diversity in the advertising sector as of 2008. More recent data from 2011 shows the same pattern, with African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics combined accounting for less than 13 percent of the industry.
“There is undoubtedly a need for more diversity…at the same time, it’s not solely about the color of employees,” she said. “It’s also about understanding your target consumer as well as the context in which you send your marketing.”
“More generally, it is about creating an inclusive, informed environment where people can comfortably discuss these issues, which are too often relegated to polemic debates.”