Media Releases

U of T Mississauga study highlights racial groups in TV ads

August 14, 2013

TORONTO, ON — White peo­ple are more like­ly to be rep­re­sent­ed, and in a pos­i­tive light, than Blacks or Asians in Cana­di­an tele­vi­sion adver­tise­ments, says a new study from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Mis­sis­sauga (UTM).

“Pre­vi­ous stud­ies have looked at depic­tions of race in Cana­di­an media, but this is the first to focus on adver­tis­ing,” says Pro­fes­sor Shy­on Bau­mann, chair of UTM’s Depart­ment of Soci­ol­o­gy. “It’s also the first to take a sam­ple of com­mer­cials and use quan­ti­ta­tive data to find the con­nec­tions between prod­ucts and dif­fer­ent racial groups.”

Bau­mann and PhD stu­dent Loret­ta Ho ana­lyzed the appear­ance and con­text of over 1,000 White, Black and East and South­east Asian char­ac­ters in 244 prime time tele­vi­sion food and din­ing ads. Peo­ple from oth­er cul­tur­al back­grounds, such as First Nations, Mid­dle East­ern and His­pan­ic, were too under-rep­re­sent­ed to include in the study, some­thing Bau­mann says is a recur­ring issue when exam­in­ing com­par­isons of race in Cana­di­an media.

The study exam­ined human char­ac­ters only, and did not include car­toons, graph­ics or voice-overs.

Bau­mann and Ho found that Whites were dis­pro­por­tion­al­ly over-rep­re­sent­ed when com­pared to the oth­er groups. Although com­pris­ing 80 per cent of the Cana­di­an pop­u­la­tion, Whites were in 87 per cent of the sam­pled ads.

Whites were also almost exclu­sive­ly asso­ci­at­ed with health­i­er whole unprocessed foods, such as eggs. Blacks and East and South­east Asians, on the oth­er hand, were over-rep­re­sent­ed in fast food ads.

To iden­ti­fy trends in how the dif­fer­ent races were rep­re­sent­ed, the study then exam­ined the con­text in which the char­ac­ters appeared.

Whites were asso­ci­at­ed with four over­ar­ch­ing cul­tur­al trends: Nos­tal­gia, which showed Whites as food crafts­peo­ple and bear­ers of tra­di­tion in qual­i­ty foods; Nat­ur­al, which asso­ci­at­ed Whites with nature, roman­ti­cized agri­cul­ture and whole­some foods; High­brow, show­ing Whites as hav­ing high socio-eco­nom­ic sta­tus; and Nuclear Fam­i­ly, which asso­ci­at­ed healthy fam­i­lies with Whites.

Blacks were more often asso­ci­at­ed with low socio-eco­nom­ic sta­tus and less often asso­ci­at­ed with fam­i­ly and tra­di­tion (a trend Bau­mann and Ho call Blue Col­lar), while East and South­east Asians were neg­a­tive­ly shown as “Asian tech­nocrats” – achieve­ment-ori­ent­ed but unemo­tion­al and robot­ic.

Not only did Whites have more pos­i­tive asso­ci­a­tions in the ads, but they were depict­ed in a wider vari­ety of sit­u­a­tions and expe­ri­ences, says Bau­mann.

“Being viewed and seen react­ing in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances gives your iden­ti­ty flex­i­bil­i­ty and allows you to be seen as more of a whole per­son,” says Bau­mann. “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.”

Bau­mann calls adver­tis­ing a good win­dow for under­stand­ing society’s idea of cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty and what it means to be a mem­ber of a par­tic­u­lar eth­no-cul­tur­al group.

“Adver­tis­ing repro­duces broad cul­tur­al under­stand­ings of race so it can con­nect quick­ly with the audi­ence,” says Bau­mann. “What this study shows is that ads are repro­duc­ing per­cep­tions of race in ways that con­tin­ue to be prob­lem­at­ic for peo­ple who are not White.”

“Inter­est­ing­ly, these are com­mer­cials broad­cast in the Toron­to mar­ket, which is 50 per cent non-White,” he adds. “We were sur­prised at how dif­fer­ent these com­mer­cials were, in terms of diver­si­ty, from our dai­ly expe­ri­ence on the streets of the city.”

The study, which was fund­ed in part by the Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties Research Coun­cil (SSHRC), is part of a larg­er study exam­in­ing tele­vi­sion adver­tis­ing con­tent in Cana­da. It was pre­sent­ed at the 2013 Amer­i­can Soci­o­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion annu­al con­fer­ence (Aug 9 to 13).


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Shy­on Bau­mann
Depart­ment of Soci­ol­o­gy
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Mis­sis­sauga

Nicolle Wahl
Mar­ket­ing and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Mis­sis­sauga