Somewhere there’s an America that’s full of neighborhoods where black and white kids play softball together, where biracial families e-mail photos online and where Asians and blacks dance in the same nightclub.
And that America is on your television.
In the idyllic world of TV commercials, Americans increasingly are living together side by side, regardless of race. The diverse images reflect a trend that has been quietly growing in the advertising industry for years: Racially mixed scenarios – families, friendships, neighborhoods and party scenes – are often used as a hip backdrop to sell products.
The ads suggest America’s ethnic communities are meshing seamlessly, bonded by a love of yogurt, lipstick and athletic gear. Last year, Verizon used a fictional interracial family – white and Hispanic – in seven commercials pushing their communications products in an effort, according to a company spokesman, to “portray something that was contemporary and realistic.”
Such commercials allow advertisers to convey an inclusive corporate image and reach a broad ethnic range of consumers. Many applaud them as an optimistic barometer of racial progress.
But critics say such ads gloss over persistent and complicated racial realities. Though the proportion of ethnic minorities in America is growing, experts say, more than superficial interaction between groups is relatively unusual. Most Americans live and mingle with people from their own racial background.
Advertising, meanwhile, is creating a “carefully manufactured racial utopia, a narrative of colorblindness” says Charles Gallagher, a sociologist at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
Only about 7 percent of marriages are interracial, according to Census data. About 80 percent of whites live in neighborhoods in which more than 95 percent of their neighbors are white, and data show most Americans have few close friends of another race, Gallagher said.
“The lens through which people learn about other races is absolutely through TV, not through human interaction and contact,” he said. “Here, we’re getting a lens of racial interaction that is far afield from reality.” Ads make it seem that race doesn’t matter, when real life would tell you something different, he added.
Multiracial images have long been used by advertisers, but the current version exploded onto billboards and magazine ads in the late 1980s, when United Colors of Bennetton ads began picturing interracial close-ups such as a white woman and black woman hugging an Asian baby. Some protested when, in 1989, the company ran a picture of a black woman breastfeeding a white baby.
Since then – and particularly since data from Census 2000 underscored the nation’s increasing ethnic complexity – ads that meld racial groups in less controversial ways have slowly become the norm. Interracial settings now are used as a matter-of-fact backdrop to sell wine and bath soap. In a typical ad, a white family or couple will be in the foreground talking or laughing while, in the background, black friends and a few Asian children may linger.
“For so long, speaking to consumers of color has been absent from the landscape,” said Dana Wade, president of Spike DDB, a New York ad agency that uses multiracial images in most of its advertising. “It’s important to correct that.”
Said Ellen Neuborne, editor of Marketing to the Emerging Majorities , an advertising industry newsletter: “This is a very smart way to approach the idea of diversity marketing.”
Commercials for Yoplait feature a multiracial group of girlfriends sitting around laughing and comparing the yogurt to various wonderful activities: “This is day-at-the-spa good. This is a-weekend-with-no-boys good.”
In another, a new Olympus mp3 player/camera is promoted by a white preteen and Asian senior citizens dancing in a gyrating pop-locking style popular with 1980s rappers. The main character is a hip, young actor of mixed Asian and Latino heritage.
Experts say such depictions are largely provoked by the advertising industry’s penchant for offering flawless images to sell products.
“Often, advertising doesn’t reflect reality – everyone is beautiful and pretty and thin, so a lot of advertising is very unrealistic,” said Sonya Grier, a marketing professor at Stanford University. “It’s always been something that reflects our aspirations, what we can be.”
Today, she added, “multiculturalism is socially desirable.”
During the Super Bowl, beer maker Anheuser-Busch Cos. ran nine commercials that included every major racial group, some in mixed settings, some not. In one of its most popular, promoting designated drivers, the black comedian Cedric the Entertainer pretended to turn a steering wheel in a nightclub, unwittingly sparking a multiracial crowd to do copycat dance moves. Every shot in the commercial pictured at least two ethnic groups – some had four.
The ad’s racial diversity “was very much discussed” during the planning stages, said Bob Lachky, vice president for brand marketing at Anheuser-Busch. “That’s very much the club situation in any progressive club in America. … The look was very, very representative of our customer base.”
Lachky added that such diversity would not work in any ad setting: A commercial featuring pop star Justin Timberlake knocking on a fan’s door, he said, had an all-white cast. “It didn’t lend itself to multicultural images, necessarily, because it was at someone’s home,” Lachky said.
Verizon might beg to differ. Last year, the company ran a series of ad featuring three families, one black, one Latino and one with a Latina mom and a white dad. The last family, named the Elliotts, was geared to appeal to mass market consumers, said John Bonomo, a company spokesman. Ethnicity was never mentioned.
That was also the case in a recent Lays potato chip commercial featuring two black kids and two white kids, neighbors, commiserating over a lost softball and eating potato chips.
Such depictions hardly reflect most real-life neighborhoods, said Jerome Williams, a professor of advertising and African-American studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Despite the progress we’ve made on civil rights and other things,” he said, “if you look at the United States in terms of where we live and who our friends are and where we go to church, we live in different worlds.”