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How Advertising Reinforces Racism, Sexism, and Classism

An excellent final paper by Kristen Tatkovski - Fall2010

Every day we are bombarded with marketing - messages doing their best to entice us, the consumer, to buy a particular product or service. It is nearly impossible to avoid. Ninety-nine percent of households own at least one television where a good portion of one's viewing time is filled with commercials (Television & Health). If you are one of the few crafty enough to avoid television commercials, then you are certain to be reached through print ads in magazines or newspapers, on billboards, buildings, buses, park benches, or any other available surface. Most of us have become accustomed to the marketing machine to which we are exposed each day. So much so that we hardly notice the covert, and sometimes overt, messages of racism, sexism, and classism much of advertising conveys.

By far the people portrayed most often in ads are white. One study found that out of 1,251 full-page ads in forty-two magazines, only seven percent represented black people. If you remove the one magazine reviewed that is marketed directly to black people, then the percentage of black people represented falls to roughly five percent (Quijano). What's more, other minority races are represented far less often. According to 2009 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, white people make up sixty-five percent of the U.S. population, yet they are represented disproportionately in advertising (USA QuickFacts).

Not only are people of color grossly underrepresented in ads, but when they are portrayed it is often as an entertainer or athlete. Seldom are they seen as professionals or as middle class families. When you begin to scrutinize commercials, you find that if a person of color is represented, they are often as a secondary character while the primary character is white. Much of the time the only person with a "voice" in the commercial is the white male, while the women and people of color are silenced. I do find exceptions, but these are by far not the rule.

Underrepresentation of people of color, and reinforcement of stereotypes in advertising is harmful to people of color and simply racist. It perpetuates the ideal that the white is the norm, and thus everything else is not the norm. It devalues anyone who is not white which can reinforce prejudices potentially leading to discrimination (Henslin 231).

Also at issue is how women are represented in advertising. Women are almost always portrayed as young, beautiful, thin, and sexy. Rarely do they have a voice in a commercial unless it is for something directly marketed to women such as the newest and greatest mop, or "quick and easy heat and serve meals that will please the entire family." These ideas reinforce gender roles that women are expected to cook, clean, and take care of the children. Even when they are portrayed as professionals, women are seen as having to work their "second shift" when they arrive home from work, figuring out how to get the house clean, dinner on the table, and help with homework all before bedtime. Advertisers are working to undermine any progress the second wave of feminism made. The messages sent to our young girls and boys is that the man is the one with the power, the one with the "voice," and the woman's role is in the home; and if a woman does have her career, it is only on the condition that she still carries out her primary duties as keeper of the home.

Even worse than reinforcing gender roles, is when ads objectify women. Who hasn't seen an ad where a beautiful women, scantily clad, and with pouty lips is standing next to a sports car or a bottle of beer. What exactly is the point of the woman lying naked on a fifth of vodka? And what do bikini models have to do with tires anyway? Evidently advertisers feel the only way to entice men to buy their product or service is to eroticize their marketing. The danger in this is that anytime you objectify someone, you dehumanize them. While it is not to say that marketing is directly responsible for violence against women, it to say that ads contribute to a "cultural climate in which women are seen as things" that is "almost always the first step toward justifying violence" against women (Kilbourne).

Finally, marketing reinforces classist attitudes. Again, we are bombarded with images of middle class families and working professionals. The message is that middle class is the norm and if you are anything less, then you are not worthy. Furthermore, if you buy their product or service then you will become just as worthy as the happy, healthy, attractive, middle class people portrayed in the advertisement. Marketers feed into the insecurities of people who internalize society's classist attitudes and desire to climb the social ladder. They want people to think that if they purchase their product their lives will improve. The message, this time of year especially, is: "Go ahead, buy that new Lexus for your wife for the holidays. Anything less and you are missing out on the true meaning of Christmas."

The average person sees 3,000 ads per day and will spend three years watching television commercials over their lifetime (Kilbourne). It is impossible to think that we are not all deeply affected by advertising. The messages that fill our televisions, magazines, newspapers, and billboards all contribute to social inequalities by reinforcing racist stereotypes, gender roles, and construction of class. We can start to affect change by supporting the companies that promote diversity in their advertising and portray women as equals, and by refusing to patronize the worst offenders - many beer and alcohol companies for starters.

Works Cited


Henslin, James M. Essentials of Sociology: A Down to Earth Approach. 8th Ed. Allyn & Bacon, 2008. eBook.
Kilbourne, Jean. "Killing Us Softly." Speech. .

Quijano, Rachel. "Racism in Advertising." Quijano Advertising. May 2006. Retrieved from the web 4 Dec 2010. .

"Television & Health." California State University Northridge. Retrieved from the web 30 Nov 2010. .

"USA QuickFacts." U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved from the web 5 Dec 2010. .