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sex and race in advertising
January 13, 2003 1:14 PM   Subscribe

Beyond Benetton and Betty Crocker: This Boston Globe article suggests a new age of multicultural marketing is upon us, with ethnically cagey Vin Diesel at the forefront. Instead of "United Nations"-style ads in which each actor is selected to represent a different group, the new style is towards ambiguity, as in the nonspecifically "ethnic" Barbies, or more casual, offhanded reference to race, as in the "Whassup?" Budweiser ads. Does this new "color-blindness" say anything about real social change, or is it just trendy hucksterism? Meanwhile, some very tired sexist chestnuts continue to appear in ads: despite her full time job and gleaming SUV, Mom still relies on classic brands to keep house and make dinner, still solely her responsibilities in TV-land. What gives?
posted by serafinapekkala (30 comments total)

 
There is a message board attached to the Globe article with some interesting reader comments, including mine: I'm all for a wider variety of images being dispersed through the cultural marketplace. My eyebrows shot up, however, at the Hershey's Syrup ad wherein a boy with light brown skin, nappy hair, and blue eyes swishes together chocolate syrup and white milk in his mouth (to make chocolate milk, duh)...a little creepy, or just too many college classes on postmodern literary criticism?

as for the ladies, how 'bout that Brawny ad where a woman sprouts a giant muscled "Brawny" arm in order to clean her kitchen? spots featuring magical animated helpers (Hamburger or otherwise) really piss me off: it's like women are not only responsible for all tasks in the domestic sphere but they need to talk to the magical Clorox bottle in order to do it. the day i see a man in a Swiffer ad (even a completely stereotyped flaming neat-freak a la Will Truman) will be a fine one...i can only think of ONE ad (for Clorox Toilet Wipes) that has a guy voluntarily doing housework (not "home improvement," just "home status quo"!). others?
posted by serafinapekkala at 1:23 PM on January 13, 2003


Does this new "color-blindness" say anything about real social change, or is it just trendy hucksterism?

Yes and yes.
posted by Ty Webb at 1:32 PM on January 13, 2003


Instead of "United Nations"-style ads in which each actor is selected to represent a different group, the new style is towards ambiguity

And yet, it seems to me that the "ethnically ambiguous" (whether genuine or created through computer graphics) represent their own, unique group. If producers of commercials chose to use models of medium height rather than the very tall or the very short, would they somehow better represent us all, whatever our particular point along the variability graph, or would they primarily represent those individuals clustered around the center of the bell curve? I submit that sameness cannot accurately represent diversity, even if it is a sameness achieved through an averaging of all differences.
posted by rushmc at 1:41 PM on January 13, 2003


I recall one of the very earliest Swiffer ads using a man in a diner cleaning up the floor - of course, he wasn't doing HOUSEWORK, per se...
posted by agregoli at 1:48 PM on January 13, 2003


Does this new "color-blindness" say anything about real social change...

Let's hope so... The less of a big deal "race" becomes, the less opportunity for our so-called leaders to keep us distracted with race- (and class-) baiting, the more we'll notice they really can't help us out with any of our problems anyway, so why do we keep investing money and power in them?

BTW, serafinapekkala, I thought the Hershey's ad was brilliant! Perhaps you need to recalibrate? :)
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:49 PM on January 13, 2003


If you portray women as being homebodies, you're sexist. If you portray them as working, you're a radical feminist. If you portray them somewhere in between, you're participating in "trendy hucksterism".

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Might as well do whatever sells.
posted by oissubke at 1:52 PM on January 13, 2003


Mom still relies on classic brands to keep house and make dinner

Housewives still do exist, you know. In vast numbers. Therefore, marketing directly to them occasionally seems to make some sense, no?
posted by sodalinda at 1:58 PM on January 13, 2003


serafinapekkala: I take it you didn't see the Swiffer ads with the choreographed dancing military men, then? It's the only Swiffer ad I remember ("shoulda used a Swiffer, boys!").
posted by biscotti at 2:02 PM on January 13, 2003


I recall one of the very earliest Swiffer ads using a man in a diner cleaning up the floor - of course, he wasn't doing HOUSEWORK, per se...

There was an earlier one set in an Army-oid barracks where a muscular young man in in a tight t-shirt and pants tight enough to accentuate his pert young buttocks danced around singing and swiffing, as his company of other similarly-attired muscular young man danced with him and sang his praises.

All I could think of was "THERE IS NO CANNIBALISM IN THE ROYAL NAVY! And when I say there is none, there is of course a certain amount, but it is now relatively under control."

In real life, I wasn't sure whether it indicated an acceptance of the blatantly homoerotic (I mean even moreso than Predator!), or was intended to make fun of gays, or neither.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:08 PM on January 13, 2003


woah, i am radically under-Swiffed, by the sound of it --- i haven't seen either of these ads w/guys in them, sorry! now that i think of it, the Pledge Grab-It ads are the ones I am thinking of, with the digital video footage of "real women" (and by those quotes I mean to indicate, "at least I thought they were actual citizens, not actors," not some kind of ironic commentary on the term "real women") using the thing, praising its ease of use, etc. only women, as if actual men never clean floors...despite said ease of use. now, i live with a copywriter so i know all about how the ad game really works...but i still find it irksome.
posted by serafinapekkala at 2:08 PM on January 13, 2003


Housewives still do exist, you know. In vast numbers. Therefore, marketing directly to them occasionally seems to make some sense, no?

Does this mean that not all senior citizens are extremely active and constantly salsa dancing, criminals are not always white, and friendly neighbors aren't always black?
posted by 4easypayments at 2:13 PM on January 13, 2003


My appearance has caused people to think I'm Middle-Eastern or a black/African-American/WTFever mix, I wear my hair in a "Chinese" bun, I henna my hands, and if you take the piercings into account, there are plenty of other cultures all over my face*.
My actual heritage is nowhere near any of those.

Where's my agent? And where's that kid with my latte?

*Oh, grow up *grin*
posted by Su at 2:19 PM on January 13, 2003 [1 favorite]


Eh, in 200 years everyone'll look like those non-specifically ethnic Barbie dolls.

Er. Except more realistically proportioned. And not plastic. And no removable heads, unless the transhumanists come up with something drastic.
posted by wanderingmind at 2:20 PM on January 13, 2003


Speaking as someone who works in advertising: it's always trendy hucksterism.
Except for that Spike Jonez IKEA ad.
Otherwise, it's always trendy hucksterism.
posted by Salmonberry at 2:26 PM on January 13, 2003


a boy with light brown skin, nappy hair, and blue eyes


How come I never notice stuff like this? Kids are kids to me. I never think about whether they're boys or girls or black or white or whatever. I completely missed the symbolism in the Hershey's ad. Now that you mention it, though, I think it's pretty cool. (Two great things together make a better thing?)
posted by small_ruminant at 2:37 PM on January 13, 2003


as if actual men never clean floors

We do clean floors, but only if there's a chance of a woman being in the apartment. Seriously, it doesn't make economic sense to try to target ads for cleaning products or "family style" foods at men because they A) rarely use them and B) if they do, it's generally a wife/live-in making the purchasing decisions. All of my single male friends eat either take-out, prepared food or sandwiches and buy cleaning products based strictly on price. (Guys, feel free to accuse me of generalizing and claim that you buy gallons of Swiffer and cases of some superior laundry detergent.)

As for the notion of niche marketing becoming a thing of the past, the article says more about the Globe than actual racial attitiudes. Divide-and-conqueror tactics are still the norm whether or not the Globe wants to run an obit.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:41 PM on January 13, 2003


"All of my single male friends...buy cleaning products based strictly on price."

You have single male friends who buy cleaning products?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 2:43 PM on January 13, 2003 [1 favorite]


It's fun to believe everything advertising shows us. It's all true, and advertising represents the zeitgeist of our lives.
posted by the fire you left me at 2:58 PM on January 13, 2003


Well, one ad that consistently cracks me up the neatnik biker for Bissell. The gruff-voiced narrator is pleased at how clean it keeps his carpets, even when his sloppy mates (over to watch figure skating on the big screen) splash their beers smoothies all over it. And another for flushable toilet wipes that ends with a guy telling his pals, "Now if I could just get the wife to use 'em!"

But this comedic role reversal approach only works occasionally. Most ads are still going to rely on the identification method, meaning their characters will be representative of the product's demographics. There certainly more moderate examples of men doing housework, too -- almost all the Glad Trash Bag ads have a man doing the garbage, even if they now use that chirpy spokeswoman who sets him straight on which brand to use; and there's more than one ad using the theme of the guy who rushes to vacuum/wash dishes/do laundry before the woman of the household gets home. Many of these rely on the hackneyed idea (like the Glad campaign) that men do these things, but don't know how to do them right, so need the convenience or ease of a brand item to keep themselves out of dutch.

This leads into a subtheme: the acceptability of male-bashing in ads. Now, I don't think this is a major problem, merely a cultural marker, so know where I'm coming from. But there are many, many ads that rely on the dumb male character being set straight by the smart female character, or letting the woman down by failing to use the branded product. This relies on a probably age-old male-female relationship balance. But is it sexist? If the examples cited above are, then so is this.

In the end, I just don't accept the thesis that all examples of women doing housework need to disappear before we can tell ourselves we've evolved.

Returning to the race issue from the Globe article, I thought it was surprising they didn't discuss the follow-up "Whassup?" ad, with dorky white (and one South Asian) guys saying "What are YOU doing?" to each other. In some ways that was a further (and even riskier) step forward to the idea that even the white audience would see this as a gentle poke at their white-men-can't-whassup uncoolness.
posted by dhartung at 3:00 PM on January 13, 2003


the fire you left me - congrats on the first verified use of the "blink" tag since 1997. I'm disturbed to see it still working.
posted by jonson at 3:14 PM on January 13, 2003


Yes. Showing a man who is too dumb to do housework is sexist, because it reinforces the idea that women have a special, innate talent for it. To a lesser extent, so is the idea that men doing housework is intrinsically comedic.

Anyhow, even if men never buy cleaning products, wouldn't nonsexist advertising appeal to women? I don't get who these 50's-style ads are supposed to attract.
posted by transona5 at 3:24 PM on January 13, 2003


My blink tag doesn't work! (IE5)
posted by Bletch at 3:34 PM on January 13, 2003


Apparently these ads, sexist or not, work. I'd wager that many of the people who would take offense at the ads will still find themselves in the supermarket aisle saying to themselves "Oh, Clorox wipes, those things are handy!"
Because that is the point of the ads, that the product is good, not that women should clean, or that men are too stupid to clean or whatever.
posted by Mushkelley at 3:47 PM on January 13, 2003


Look, they do lots of market research on who their target customer is. I guarantee you the primary purchaser of cleaning products is NOT male. Politically correct or not, ads are to sell things.
posted by konolia at 4:32 PM on January 13, 2003


a boy with light brown skin, nappy hair, and blue eyes

(Two great things together make a better thing?)



I've always thought that ideas of hybrid superiority were still ideas of genetically-based superiority.
posted by jann at 4:48 PM on January 13, 2003


What konolia said. These big companies don't spend millions on advertising after deciding the target market on a whim. Usually some pretty indepth research has gone into it.

You know what your comments tells me? That there is a large niche market for cleaning products that seek to reverse or neutralize gender roles! I just need to come up with a name to run past the focus groups....

(hands off jonson, I came up with the idea first)
posted by Salmonberry at 4:48 PM on January 13, 2003


I seem to recall seeing an ad for Stouffer's frozen entrées recently that involved a father bringing his daughter home after a discouraging soccer game and fixing her a hot, encouraging meal (or that was the general jist of it, at least.) Still, I actually sat up and noticed the gender reversal -- and if I actually bought frozen entrées, I might have actually switched to Stouffer's because of how damn refreshing it was to see such an ad...

(For reference: male, age 23.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:59 PM on January 13, 2003


Ads are going to have to get more and more and more visual to attract my attention -- for years now I've been hitting the mute button as soon as it's commerical time. I *think* I may have glanced up and seen some of the ads mentioned, but I'm not really sure. When there's no sound, those things really blend together.
posted by JanetLand at 6:42 PM on January 13, 2003


My basic response is yay. I am of mixed ancestry (Iranian/European) and haven't been able to fit into this happy multiethnic gap ad world since I lack a uniform identity to cling to. Unfortunately the racially simplified majority will now have to look in on the Heinz 57 cool crowd until the next cultural shift. Since 'mulatto cool' is about as far as this trend seems to be able to go the next phase will either have to be genetically enhanced humans or some kind of fascist backlash.
posted by nasim at 7:32 PM on January 13, 2003


Or genetically enhanced humans followed by fascist backlash.
posted by wanderingmind at 3:23 PM on January 14, 2003


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