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How Canadian advertising is guilty of racial profiling

New study reveals sad reality


The topic of diversity in advertising has been a hot one for many years, whether you’re talking about the creative workforce or the work itself. A new study being presented this week by University of Toronto Mississauga sociology professor Shyon Baumann looks at how advertising in this country profiles and portrays different racial groups, and the results aren’t as rosy as you might expect.

The study looked at 244 commercials in the food and dining category, that ran on CBC, CTV and Global primarily in 2008 and 2009, though some are still on the air in 2013. And while some marketers can be a bit cliche in how their ads seem to run down the checklist of races, Baumann’s study, done with PhD student Loretta Ho, found that white people are more likely to be represented, and in a positive light, than Blacks or Asians in Canadian TV ads. They found that whites were overly associated with categories like nostalgia (craftspeople and tradition), natural (wholesome foods, agriculture) and the stereotypical nuclear family. Meanwhile, blacks were more often associated with a lower socio-economic status and Asians were portrayed more often as unemotional and robotic.

One ad cited in the study was this one for Post Foods’ Honey Bunches of Oats cereal.

Notice all or most of the factory workers were non-white, while the character in the lab coat was a white guy. It also called out a Loblaw’s spot in which CEO Galen Weston talks to farmers (like this), and all the farmers are white. That, Baumann writes, “is noteworthy for the extent to which it diverges from social reality. In reality, a scene set on farmers’ fields across the country should show that a great deal of agricultural work in Canada is done by racialized minorities, both Canadian and temporary foreign workers. This exclusion reinforces the notion that Whites are especially in tune with, have a special affinity with, and are authorities on the natural world and are responsible for wholesome and natural food production.”

Obviously there are examples that deviate from the norm Baumann’s study portrays, but diversity in advertising continues to be a critical issue and one agencies and marketers need to increasingly address. Executives at multicultural ad agencies told Marketing that, outside of telcos and financial institutions, Fortune 500 companies have been slow to respond to Canada’s demographic shift. And even when they do get it right, the response can be strange. Remember that cute little Cheerios ad that caused such a stir?

Baumann says that “being viewed and seen reacting in different circumstances gives your identity flexibility and allows you to be seen as more of a whole person. But if you’re consistently portrayed as only one type of person, for instance, technologically savvy but socially awkward, your identity and society’s expectations of you are constrained by that very flat portrayal.”

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