Selling delusions for profit?
Somewhere there's an America that's full of neighborhoods where
black and white kids play softball together, where biracial families
e-mail photos online and where Asians and blacks dance in the same
And that America is on your television.
In the idyllic world of TV commercials, Americans increasingly
are living together side by side, regardless of race. The diverse
images reflect a trend that has been quietly growing in the advertising
industry for years: Racially mixed scenarios - families, friendships,
neighborhoods and party scenes - are often used as a hip backdrop to
The ads suggest America's ethnic communities are meshing
seamlessly, bonded by a love of yogurt, lipstick and athletic gear.
Last year, Verizon used a fictional interracial family - white and
Hispanic - in seven commercials pushing their communications products
in an effort, according to a company spokesman, to "portray something
that was contemporary and realistic."
Such commercials allow advertisers to convey an inclusive corporate
image and reach a broad ethnic range of consumers. Many applaud them as
an optimistic barometer of racial progress.
But critics say such ads gloss over persistent and complicated
racial realities. Though the proportion of ethnic minorities in America
is growing, experts say, more than superficial interaction between
groups is relatively unusual. Most Americans live and mingle with
people from their own racial background.
Advertising, meanwhile, is creating a "carefully manufactured
racial utopia, a narrative of colorblindness" says Charles Gallagher, a
sociologist at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
Only about 7 percent of marriages are interracial, according to
Census data. About 80 percent of whites live in neighborhoods in which
more than 95 percent of their neighbors are white, and data show most
Americans have few close friends of another race, Gallagher said.
"The lens through which people learn about other races is
absolutely through TV, not through human interaction and contact," he
said. "Here, we're getting a lens of racial interaction that is far
afield from reality." Ads make it seem that race doesn't matter, when
real life would tell you something different, he added.
Multiracial images have long been used by advertisers, but the
current version exploded onto billboards and magazine ads in the late
1980s, when United Colors of Bennetton ads began picturing interracial
close-ups such as a white woman and black woman hugging an Asian baby.
Some protested when, in 1989, the company ran a picture of a black
woman breastfeeding a white baby.
Since then - and particularly since data from Census 2000
underscored the nation's increasing ethnic complexity - ads that meld
racial groups in less controversial ways have slowly become the norm.
Interracial settings now are used as a matter-of-fact backdrop to sell
wine and bath soap. In a typical ad, a white family or couple will be
in the foreground talking or laughing while, in the background, black
friends and a few Asian children may linger.
"For so long, speaking to consumers of color has been absent
from the landscape," said Dana Wade, president of Spike DDB, a New York
ad agency that uses multiracial images in most of its advertising.
"It's important to correct that."
Said Ellen Neuborne, editor of Marketing to the Emerging
Majorities , an advertising industry newsletter: "This is a very smart
way to approach the idea of diversity marketing."
Commercials for Yoplait feature a multiracial group of
girlfriends sitting around laughing and comparing the yogurt to various
wonderful activities: "This is day-at-the-spa good. This is
In another, a new Olympus mp3 player/camera is promoted by a
white preteen and Asian senior citizens dancing in a gyrating
pop-locking style popular with 1980s rappers. The main character is a
hip, young actor of mixed Asian and Latino heritage.
Experts say such depictions are largely provoked by the
advertising industry's penchant for offering flawless images to sell
"Often, advertising doesn't reflect reality - everyone is
beautiful and pretty and thin, so a lot of advertising is very
unrealistic," said Sonya Grier, a marketing professor at Stanford
University. "It's always been something that reflects our aspirations,
what we can be."
Today, she added, "multiculturalism is socially desirable."
During the Super Bowl, beer maker Anheuser-Busch Cos. ran nine
commercials that included every major racial group, some in mixed
settings, some not. In one of its most popular, promoting designated
drivers, the black comedian Cedric the Entertainer pretended to turn a
steering wheel in a nightclub, unwittingly sparking a multiracial crowd
to do copycat dance moves. Every shot in the commercial pictured at
least two ethnic groups - some had four.
The ad's racial diversity "was very much discussed" during the
planning stages, said Bob Lachky, vice president for brand marketing at
Anheuser-Busch. "That's very much the club situation in any progressive
club in America. ... The look was very, very representative of our
Lachky added that such diversity would not work in any ad
setting: A commercial featuring pop star Justin Timberlake knocking on
a fan's door, he said, had an all-white cast. "It didn't lend itself to
multicultural images, necessarily, because it was at someone's home,"
Verizon might beg to differ. Last year, the company ran a
series of ad featuring three families, one black, one Latino and one
with a Latina mom and a white dad. The last family, named the Elliotts,
was geared to appeal to mass market consumers, said John Bonomo, a
company spokesman. Ethnicity was never mentioned.
That was also the case in a recent Lays potato chip commercial
featuring two black kids and two white kids, neighbors, commiserating
over a lost softball and eating potato chips.
Such depictions hardly reflect most real-life neighborhoods,
said Jerome Williams, a professor of advertising and African-American
studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
"Despite the progress we've made on civil rights and other
things," he said, "if you look at the United States in terms of where
we live and who our friends are and where we go to church, we live in
Assocated Press, February 22, 2005