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Typically, the first thing we look for in a photograph is ourselves. Advertisers recognize this fact and use it to their advantage. Because of this, we can learn a lot about a company’s target customer base by observing the people featured in its advertisements.

The appearance (and, in commercials, the sounds) of the people as well as the setting (location) of an advertisement speaks to both the company’s target audience and its assumptions about that audience. When reading an advertisement in terms of race, it is important to notice which demographics are represented, and which are not, since companies construct ads with a distinct awareness of their target demographic. This may mean that the represented demographic in the advertisement embodies the company’s actual or target customer. However, the presence of an African American woman in an advertisement for a department store may not mean that the store’s target audience is only African American women. Keep in mind that some advertisements do not necessarily depict their target consumer directly; sometimes, they may depict how the consumer might see him- or herself—or alternatively, how he or she might see others. Because racial identification informs the way we interpret advertisements and, likewise, works as an advertising strategy, advertisements can reflect our society’s changing conceptions of and attitudes toward racial constructs.

For example, take a look (or rather, a listen) at this 1943 Aunt Jemima radio ad:

And then view this 1994 Aunt Jemima commercial:

How do the contexts of these advertisements inform the advertisers' portrayals of race?

Racial and Cultural Stereotypes

When looking at an advertisement through the lens of race, it is important to note how individuals of various races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds are portrayed. It’s also important to note how stereotypes may be at work in the advertisement as well as how they affect the message. Many races, ethnicities, and cultural groups are often misrepresented in advertising through stereotypes that advertisers exploit under the pretense that they are attempting to identify with a specific audience. In your analysis, be sure to take notice of factors such as appearance and attire, body language and gestures, setting, speech, socioeconomic status, and education.

Take a look at the following 2006 Jimmy Johns commercial:

How are the characters interacting with each other in this commercial? What is the relationship between the product and the characters? What stereotypes might the advertiser be perpetuating in this commercial? With what specific audience is the advertiser trying to identify? Is there a difference between the target audience and the actual audience that this commercial might reach?

A Checklist for Analyzing Race in Print Advertisements

  • Context: What is the context for this ad's publication? Where did it first appear—on television, on the radio, on the Internet, or in a print source? What magazine or online site is it published at? If applicable, where is the original billboard located? How would readers/viewers see or have seen this ad (driving by at 60 mph, as a small banner at the top of a website, as a glossy spread in a magazine, etc.)?

  • Audience: Who is the intended audience of this ad?

  • Product: What is the ad trying to sell? Can you identify it at first glance? The primary function of a visual advertisement is to sell a specific product, service, or idea: Is the product prominently displayed? Or, is it less noticeable than other aspects of the advertisement? On what expectations are the advertisers banking? Of what does the ad say that its audience is in need? That is, what need does the product aim to fulfill? Is there a correlation implied between the product and a particular race? If so, what is the demographic associated with the advertisement?

  • People: Who is pictured in the ad? Of what race or ethnicity are the models/characters?

  • Body position: Are the models/characters sitting, standing, or moving? Where are they in relation to the other elements of the ad? If there are models/characters of different races or ethnicities featured in the ad, consider their positions in relation to one another: Does one model’s/character's body position seem inferior or superior to the other's? Is his or her position contrasted against that of an individual of another race or ethnicity? Based on body positions, can you make any assumptions about the relationships between the represented demographics? What relationship do they have with the product being advertised?

  • Body language: What are the models'/characters' postures? Are they standing straight and tall, leaning against something, sitting down, or hunching over? Where are their arms? How are their heads positioned? Is there a clear emotion being conveyed by the models' body language? If there are models of different races or ethnicities featured in the ad, consider their body language toward one another: Based on body language, can you make any assumptions about the relationships between the represented demographics?

  • Movement: Is there explicit action or movement in the ad? Implied action or movement? How are the characters interacting with each other in the commercial?

  • Diversity: What races or cultures are represented in the ad? Are the ethnicities of the models evident? If there is more than one individual pictured in the ad, consider their appearances in relation to one another: Are they all of the same general physical appearance and/or age? Are there equal numbers of people representing each race? What can these observations tell you about the target audience of the ad?

  • Subtexts: What are the underlying arguments or assertions of the ad? Is there an obvious correlation between race and the product? Is there an assumption made that a person of a certain race or culture might find the product particularly interesting or useful? That is, does the advertisement directly target a particular race, or does it seem racially nonspecific? If targeted, what does the ad communicate about the norms of the demographic’s lifestyle, needs, and desires? Look for subtexts that both support and refute traditional racial stereotypes.

  • Written language: Is there text in the ad? If so, is the text informational? Does it directly relate to the product? Does it contain a slogan or catchphrase? Something else? What level of language is used? Slang? Jargon? Does the language seem targeted toward a particular race? Can it be interpreted in multiple ways?