Friday, April 9, 2010

The Use of Ethnicity in Post-Secondary Advertisements

Angela Carruthers, Jasminder Sandhu, Sima Mosavi

The billboard has been an effective method of advertising since the beginning of the 20th century (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009). The content of billboard advertisements becomes crucial when one analyzes their subversively social intentions. The focus and purpose of this blog is to examine the manifestation of racial marking and the use of stereotypes in ads for post-secondary institutions.

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As the textbook states, “advertisements...promise consumers, whether explicitly or implicitly, that their lives will change for the better if they buy a particular product or brand” (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009, p275). In this advertisement for King’s university they promise inspiration. But why use an Asian in this advertisement? Deshpandé and Stayman (1994) found that people from a minority group find a spokesperson from their group more trustworthy, leading to a more positive view of the brand. Easily enough, King’s University is trying to persuade Asians to attend their institution, but what about the majority White group? Why exclude the majority of a population and focus on such a small group?

Within Deshpandé and Stayman’s article, however, they note that this in-group trustworthiness is only evident for minority groups. The majority group is not as overtly affected by the ethnicity of the product’s spokesperson--so why Asian, and not Black or Hispanic? Asians are seen as a model minority, as Lee (1996) points out. Asians are often stereotyped as a minority who achieve academic and economic success through hard work and talent. This billboard is telling the consumer that they too can achieve this success if they join the King’s University Alumni.

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At first glance, this appears to be a successful woman of ethnic (re: Indian) decent. Her picture is highlighted, and her obviously ethnic name is aggrandized. At first glance, this ad appears to be celebrating diversity and the accomplishments of an ethnic woman; however, if we take a second look her ethnicity can easily be questioned. She is a westernized Indian. This ad suggests that the success of an ethnic minority might depend on their assimilation into western culture.

“Proven Leadership,” the sign says, but what is proven? This ad is assuming a certain degree of truth that is not backed-up by statistics. This is not a depiction of reality. In Canada, women of a visible minority group are more likely to be unemployed, and when employed are more likely to be in clerical, administrative, service and sales jobs. They are likely to be paid less and to only work part-time. This ad presupposes that it's easy, and often common, for women of colour to raise to positions of authority. It does not reflect reality in the slightest, but it tries to.

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This advertisement is important when taken into an Edmontonian context. MacEwan South is located right in the centre of Millwoods, an area with an immigrant population of over 27%. The career opportunities that MacEwan South is advertising on this billboard include “Child and Youth Care, Correctional Services and Disability Studies.” All of these jobs would be considered a part of the service industry, and as noted earlier the majority of visible minorities work in this field. This ad merely propagates the social stratification of ethnicities that is already apparent in Canadian society.

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The important thing to note about this billboard is what is not here: a Black male. The Black male has a long history of being seen as savage and unpredictable, and was constructed as an inferior being during the slave-trade (McNally, 2006). McNally suggests that these ideas remain ingrained in us today, hence the lack of a Black male in this otherwise gender and racially-diverse advertisement. Incorporating a Black man would possibly undermine the ideals of higher-education professed by this ad.

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This advertisement here depicts a spectrum of racial and ethnic diversity. It’s using blatant interpellation as a way to reach out to all groups of people. However, the way the photo is laid out favours the White population. The White, blonde woman is standing with her hands on her hips and her mouth open as if about to say or do something, compared to the Indian woman who appears to be more reserved. The Black man, with his stereotypical backwards baseball cap is diminished by the position of the King's University College's text, and we only see his profile.

There is also a distinct lack of a Native American representative. This is something we noticed in all of the ads we encountered: not one had the image of a Native American. In many of his essays, King (2003) supposes that a White majority culture can only accept Natives as typical Indians. If they’re not in ceremonial head-dresses, eating bannock, then they’re drunks. As a post-secondary institution, it's understandable that King's wouldn't want to be associated with these images, and so avoids them all together.

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Weitz and Gordon (1993) discovered that anglo-college students characterize black women as “loud, talkative, aggressive, straightforward and argumentative” (p 19). This image represents a black woman who’s singing loudly. Often when singing, performers (of any ethnicity) can come across as aggressive and straightforward. Having this photo of a Black woman singing reconfirms stereotypes that college students already hold. This reaffirmation reduces cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously (see Festinger, 1957). The reduction of cognitive dissonance is a positive feeling; people who view this sign associate it with a positive feeling, and are more likely to associate that positive feeling to MacEwan itself.

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The main importance of this ad is that NAIT is focusing on “Education for the Real World.” But what does that mean within an ethnic context? University degrees (as opposed to the diplomas that NAIT offers) can commonly be seen as frivolous. People don’t seem to appreciate an education for the sake of education. NAIT is supposing that ethnic minorities don’t appreciate education for education’s sake: this assumes an attitude that learning is not important in and of itself. It was Aristotle (1984, p1555) who professed the importance of knowledge, without the bother of practicality, and being Black, how could this man possibly understand Aristotle?

Interpellating to the Black community using a Black spokesperson, followed with the tag “Education for the Real World” assumes that people of ethnicity are somehow less refined than White people. They don’t have the sophistication to appreciate the high arts, or other such trivialities.

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The pictures depicted above demonstrate the way racial and ethnic stereotypes are used in post secondary billboard advertisements. There are several reasons behind choosing certain races to pose for billboards--whether it be ethnic interpellation or opposing cognitive dissonance in the consumer population. These institutions are trying to sell a product, a very expensive product, so they use every method available to them. Whether or not these were the advertisers' true intentions, or if we are simply creating an experience by blending our ideologies with those presented is yet to be known; the clear thing is that ethnic prejudice has a strong base in our society's cultural narrative.


Aristotle. 1984. “The Complete Works of Aristotle.” Ed. Johnathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1552 - 1555.

Rohit Deshpandé & Douglas M. Stayman. 1994. A tale of two cities: Distinctiveness theory and advertising effectiveness. Journal of Marketing Research, 31, 57-64.

L. Festinger 1957. A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Maria Sturken and Lisa Cartwright. 2009. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thomas King. 2003. The Truth About Stories. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

Stacey J. Lee. 1996. Unraveling the "Model Minority" Stereotypes: Listening to Asian American Youth. New York: Teachers College Press.

David McNally. 2006. Another world is possible: Globalization & anti-capitalism. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing. 137-203.

Rose Weitz & Leonard Gordon. 1993. Images of black women among anglo college students. Sex Roles, 28, 19- 34.

Women in Canada: A gender-based statistical report. 5th ed. p 237-255. . Accessed April 7, 2010.

Canada Votes 2008: Edmonton-Millwoods-Beaumont. Accessed April 7, 2010.

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