Stereotypes. We all complain about them; that in itself is a stereotype. But very few of us really understand what a powerful marketing tool they are.
In the business of promoting and selling products or services, stereotypes serve as a short cut for processing information. Marketers rely on stereotypes because the consumer’s attention is fleeting. A glance at an advert in between the covers of a magazine, a 30-second advert placed in between their favourite show, a quick drive past a billboard along the highway, there is no guarantee that a consumer will engage with an advert long enough to process to much information.
Usually centred around a particular character, stereotypes leave us with one-dimensional ideas of complex identities. People of colour suffer most from the damaging effects of stereotyping in the media. Indian, Asian and Black people as well as mixed ethnicities are often turned into caricatures while white people are put up on a pedestal, the standard to aspire to.
Another reason for the prevalence of stereotypes is that a large group of people who share similar characteristics is not easy to define. Women, for example, are put into the same category based on their sex and are assumed to share the same range of interests. A domesticated group of people that love the colour pink and enjoy the smell of flowers. These cues are meant to instantly signal a particular idea for this and other social groups – race, sexual orientation, class and so forth.
Some stereotypes can appear to be harmless. The gorgeous group of healthy white girls, with megawatt smiles, selling you Garnier’s latest range of face creams. The emerging breed of young, sexy, urban, black faces selling that aspirational lifestyle, a lifestyle that comes in many forms: the latest car, that new beer, that face cream aimed at black men who care for their skin.
But even when they are seemingly benign, stereotypes can perpetuate a negative and limited view of a particular group of people. Any advert where a woman is depicted calling on “a big, strong man” for help perpetuates the idea that women are weaker than men, and therefore helpless without them. Using a cast of white girls in a cosmetics advert can make them the standard of beauty.
More often than not, stereotypes damage the perception of anyone who belongs to that group. They also work inversely when they exclude one group from a particular ideal. The more people get exposed to that idea, the deeper that view becomes entrenched. Advertising is one of the most pervasive ways this exposure happens.
It feels as though black people in prime time advertising serve as comic relief. Anyone with black friends that critically engage with most forms of media should by now have heard the question: “Why are we always singing?”
When you think about it, we really are always singing. For food, for airtime, for pads, for tea, for dinner… The fact that the adults singing in most of these ads are overweight makes it even worse. If we are not being portrayed as criminals, prostitutes and drug addicts (in movies such as Jerusalema, Tsotsi, How to Steal 2 Million and Hard to Get) then we are the portrayed in the silliest, loudest, over-the-top ways. The fat, singing, dancing butt of the joke.
There is the Freshpak Rooibos “feel so good” advert where the woman sings, dances and screams all over the set. The same goes for the lady in the pink tracksuit in another Freshpak ad who prances around a kitchen and makes tea in the most ridiculously energetic way.
Some would say, “We need to be able to laugh at ourselves,” but would these advertisements have had the same impact if the main character was white?
Remember the Feed a Child SA advert that had “black twitter” up in arms about the fact that a black child was portrayed as a dog? The organisation is apologetic now but wasn’t there anyone who said anything cautionary before this ad was aired? From the staff of the charity to those involved in conceptualizing and filming the advert, was there absolutely no one who felt the need to say that a wealthy white woman feeding a black child like a dog might be offensive and perpetuate negative stereotypes?
Where do we draw the line?
The local media industry generates billions of rands in revenue and a lot of people are involved in the creation of this content. There is a chain of command and a number of checks and balances that content needs to go through before it reaches the consumer. Where the heck are the people with all the sense?
Adverts are not the only form of content that we engage with however. South Africa’s media industry is growing at an exponential rate and the market is becoming saturated with shows that depict “black life.” Yes, shows such as Generations, Muvhango, Skeem Saam, Zone 14 and Zabalaza have predominantly black casts but they are created and often owned by production companies headed by white people. The same applies to the advertising industry – the powers that be are still comprised mostly of white people. The same people that have little to no experience of black life. The executives may be surrounded by staff with first-hand experience of black life but as the aforementioned examples show, their staff don’t seem to have much influence on the final product. That, or they genuinely find nothing wrong with the existing portrayal.
We as black people are the biggest consumers of this content that paints us in such a negative light and turns our lives as the target consumer into a caricature. That is one of many reasons why it’s problematic for media content to be stereotypical.
What needs to happen is that we as media practitioners need to change how we think. We should never forget the power that we as the media really hold. We should be careful not to denigrate or misrepresent the audience’s life circumstances.
From black practitioners, to white owners – we all have the responsibility of ensuring content that is an accurate representation of any reality. And consumers have the responsibility to hold us accountable for perpetuating racist stereotypes of complex identities.
Follow me on Twitter @Kay_Tatyana
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