UTM finds black and Asian people are often shown in negative light

White people are over-represented in Canadian television advertisements, and they are more likely to be presented in a positive light than black or Asian people, according to a new study from the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). The study, which attempted to trace the connections between different racial groups and the products they are coupled with in Canadian television advertisements, found that although white people compose 80 per cent of Canada’s population, 87 per cent of the more than 1,000 characters analyzed from 244 prime time television advertisements were white.

Professor Shyon Baumann, primary author of the study and chair of UTM’s Department of Sociology says this is the first study that focuses on advertising and uses quantitative data to find connections. He believes television advertising is a particularly interesting medium through which to look at how people of different races are portrayed, as the brevity of television commercials leaves little time for nuance or character development.

Baumann, along with phd student Loretta Ho, studied the appearance of 1,000 white, black, and east and southeast Asian people in advertisements, noting their appearances and the contexts in which they appeared. Other races such as First Nations and Hispanic were insufficiently represented in advertisements to be included in the study.

White people were most often matched with healthy foods — like eggs or milk — whereas black and Asian people are disproportionately featured in ads for fast food. The cultural trends white people were associated with include nostalgia, nature, and nuclear family. These cultural trends showed white people to be bearers of tradition in quality food, with higher socioeconomic status, and better rounded family lives.

White people were generally portrayed as wealthy, whereas black and Asian people were typically shown as having low socio-economic status or a less traditional family structure. Those Asian people who were shown as wealthy appeared caricaturized with negative overtones — robotic and focused on success, with minimal mention of family in the advertisements.

When asked why he thinks advertisers chose white people over many other racial groups, Baumann said “I think they don’t [consider]…diversity when it comes to casting or conceptualizing commercials, they do what is convenient and portray…white people because it’s easier [without worrying about the] implications of race for the brand identity they are developing.”

Baumann and Ho also indicate that white people are depicted in a wider variety of situations and experiences than other ethnic groups. This makes them seem like better rounded individuals, allowing the viewer to see them as whole person. Baumann is concerned that the similarity of situations in which non-white actors are portrayed has negative sociological effects so that eventually: “the society’s expectations of the race are constrained.”

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