Culture and Subcultures

40 Culture and Marketing

For as long as marketing has been a practiced profession, marketers have been creating stereotypes and perpetuating the wrongful depictions of gender and ethnic sub-cultures within a dominant Euro-Western context. An important theme in this book is the relationship between marketing and culture: this book seeks to identify how these two influence and inform one another. When marketers create products that draw on inaccurate stereotypes what impact do these have on society’s perspectives and understanding of non-dominant cultures in Canada and the United States?

Bias, Stereotypes & Discrimination

People are often against others outside of their own social group, showing (emotional bias), (cognitive bias), and (behavioural bias). In the past, people used to be more explicit with their biases, but during the 20th century, when it became less socially acceptable to exhibit bias, such things like prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination became more subtle (automatic, ambiguous, and ambivalent). In the 21st century, however, with social group categories even more complex, biases may be transforming once again.

Understanding Bias

A group of people stand holding signs labeling them as others perceive them. The signs include, "Muslim", "Indian", "Criminal", "Immigrant", "Privileged", and "Queer."
Whether we are aware of it or not (and usually we’re not), we sort the world into “us” and “them” categories. We are more likely to great with bias or discrimination anyone we feel is outside our own group.

Most people like themselves well enough, and most people identify themselves as members of certain groups but not others. Logic suggests, then, that because we like ourselves, we therefore like the groups we associate with more, whether those groups are our hometown, school, religion, gender, or ethnicity. Liking yourself and your groups is human nature. The larger issue, however, is that often results in liking other groups less. And whether you recognize this “favouritism” as wrong, this trade-off is relatively automatic, that is, unintended, immediate, and irresistible.

The Implications of Own-Group Preference

How might own-group preference influence the decisions we make as consumers? Perhaps it causes us to become loyal to particular brands or companies while completely omitting others from consideration? It may even influence us to the extent that we’ll pay more for an item  — looking past the more reasonably-priced generic option — to ensure that brand association reinforces our preferences. The role of own-group preference plays into our own self-concept which often informs our consumer decision making.

Own-group preference also influences our purchasing behaviours by holding us back from making excessive “impulse” buys: due to our need for extensive evaluation, we may require more time to ensure our decision is both informed and aligned with how we perceive ourselves as consumers and how we want others to perceive us. Brands play a powerful role in distinguishing us not only as individual consumers, but also as members of larger consumer groups.

Stereotypes in Marketing

It should come as no surprise that cultural stereotypes (the positive or negative beliefs that we hold about the characteristics of a racial or ethnic group) inform societal views in a way that does real harm to those affected. Stereotypes (historical and contemporary) have played a significant role in shaping peoples’ attitudes towards others. Stereotypes are deeply embedded within many structures of our society such as education and entertainment. When stereotypes are used repeatedly in advertisements, television shows, Hollywood movies, and even depicted on cereal boxes, a young mind grows to accept them as reality.  This reality not only shapes one’s attitude, it directly effects how an adult judges and behaves towards others. Teachers, law makers, artists, religious leaders, designers, politicians, movie makers, and marketers have all had their attitudes shaped by stereotypes: over time, they accepted these stereotypes as an accurate reflection of the past and a indisputable image of society today. When we fail to address stereotypes we fail every member of our societies.

For this reason, the interconnection between marketing and culture is often easier to see than to break. More often than not, the burden of ending the creation and perpetuation of stereotypes falls to those targeted by the stereotyping. Everyone has a moral responsibility to call out stereotyping and seize to benefit and profit from it.

Stereotypes in Advertising

Advertisements have a long history of relying on stereotypical characters to promote products. For many years Aunt Jemima sold pancake mix and Rastus was a grinning Black chef who pitched Cream of Wheat hot cereal. The Gold Dust Twins were Black urchins who peddled a soap powder for Lever Brothers and Pillsbury hawked powdered drink mixes using characters such as “Injun Orange” and “Chinese Cherry”—who had buck teeth.

These negative depictions began to decline in the 1960s as the civil rights movement gave more power to racialized groups and their rising economic status began to command marketers’ respect. Frito-Lay responded to protests by the Hispanic community and stopped using the “Frito Bandito” character in 1971, and Quaker Foods gave Aunt Jemima a makeover in 1968 (plaid headband) and in 1989 (pearl earrings and a lace collar) (Hsu, 2020; Westerman, 1989). As part of its fiftieth-anniversary celebration for Crest toothpaste, Procter & Gamble reintroduced its “Crest Kid,” who first appeared in 1956 as a “white bread,” apple-cheeked girl painted by artist Norman Rockwell. It’s telling that the new Crest Kid is Cuban American.

Similarly, a recent campaign gives a radical makeover to the Black Uncle Ben character who appeared on rice packages for more than sixty years dressed as a servant. (White Southerners once used “uncle” and “aunt” as honorary names for older African Americans because they refused to address them as “Mr.” and “Mrs.”) The character is remade as Ben (just Ben), an accomplished businessman with an opulent office who shares his “grains of wisdom” about rice and life on the brand’s web site (Elliot, 2007).

In 2020, the Aunt Jemima brand was in the spotlight again and called out for its continued use of both a racist name and imagery. This time, a TikTok video that went viral brought attention to the brand’s racist history and Quaker Oats (owned by PepsiCo since 2001) announced that it would retire the name and change the packaging (Hsu, 2020).

These positive steps are motivated by both good intentions and pragmatism. Ethnic consumers spend more than $600 billion a year on products and services. Immigrants make up 10 per cent of the U.S. population, and California is less than half white. Advertisers and their agencies couldn’t ignore this new reality even if they wanted to.

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is defined as “the taking—from a culture that is not one’s own—of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artifacts, history and ways of knowledge.” (Ziff & Rao, 1997, p.1). There is increasing evidence that a culture’s aspects are “borrowed” by outsiders that cause profound offense to insiders (Rogers, 2006; Young, 2005).

Sanga Song and Nokyeon Kim (2020) conducted qualitative research to understand students’ perceptions and experiences with cultural appropriation and how they can be better informed through education. A total of 116 business students from the midwest (USA) participated in their study which involved discussion forum questions & answers and some follow-up interviews. Below are some of the findings from their research.

Recognizing & understanding: The respondents defined as follows: (1) done by outsiders, (2) for their personal interest, (3) in an inappropriate or disrespectful way, (4) without knowing the background of the culture, and (5) without permission or acknowledgment. A lack of credit or appreciation of the original culture is the main issue of cultural appropriation (Rogers, 2006). Respondents also pointed out that, as opposed to cultural appreciation, which embraces the history behind a specific ritual or belief and cherishes it respectively, cultural appropriation takes artifacts or cultural property without permission to exploit it in ways that are disapproved.

Applying & analyzing: Respondents shared various examples of cultural appropriation they experienced in their daily lives. Examples included sports teams (e.g., Washington Redskins) using Native American tribal names or images as mascots, fashion brands (e.g., Gucci, Marc Jacobs) showcasing white models wearing Sikh turbans or faux dreadlocks, computer games (e.g., Far Cry 3, Overwatch) inspired by Maori and Samoan cultures, and white artists in historically African American music genres (e.g., Hip-Hop, Reggae, R&B). Respondents also identified several instances of cultural appropriation from celebrity cases (e.g., Kim Kardashians’ cornrows, Katy Perry’s geisha costume, Rhianna’s chola makeup, Zac Efron’s dreadlocks) to ordinary people wearing Navajo headdresses or henna tattoos at music festivals or Native American Halloween costumes. This could be harmful, as they misrepresent or create racial stereotypes of already marginalized or colonized cultures (Rogers, 2006).

Evaluating & creating: To avoid appropriating or misrepresenting a culture or community, respondents indicated that education is the most important. Respondents suggested that marketers or designers should research the history of a culture before deciding to use its elements. Respondents also recommended that working with diverse groups at school or at work would be helpful in understanding and experiencing different cultures. Testing a design or advertisement with people of diverse backgrounds before releasing it to the public was also recommended.

Cultural Appropriation & Indigenous Mascots

In 2018, Teen Vote writer Heather Davidson wrote an op-ed entitled, “How Racism Against Native People Is Normalized, From Mascots to Costumes” bringing this important topic into the spotlight once again. First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Peoples have been raising this issue for a long time, but often their explanations have either gone ignored or unheard. Davidson, a Dena’ina Athabascan and Unangan (Aleutian) who lives in California made clear in her piece that Indigenous Mascots and Native costumes are more than an act of ignorance — they are an act of colonial violence.

Cultural appropriation occurs when, “our images, symbols, and cultures are used as commodities and novelties. Natives are used as logos, from butter packaging to cigarettes to baking soda to clothing. Natives are used as Halloween costumes. Native tribe names are used by the U.S. military as names for weapons. Native tribe names are used as names for vehicles. Natives are used as mascots for spots teams” (Davidson, 2018).

Cultural appropriation is a form of racism that has become “normalized”, argues Davidson. Settler Canadians and Americans have become so conditioned to seeing appropriated images and hearing appropriated names that we often fail to identify it and call it out. In 2019, Mariah Gladstone, Amskapiikuni, Tsalagi (Blackfeet, Cherokee) wrote a Twitter thread about the harm behind the use of Native mascots in sports and how their use exasperates racism. Mariah and I transformed her thread into the piece below so students could better understand how cultural appropriation is a harmful practice that must end.

The Problems with Indigenous Mascots

Feeling the need to make a Twitter thread on WHY Native mascots are harmful (and no, it’s not about our delicate little feelings). The following is a summary on some of the actual effects of these mascots.

Clinical psychologist Michael Friedman, the author of, “The Harmful Psychological Effects of the Washington Football Mascot” stated in his report that, “[a] series of studies show that if Native Americans are shown images of stereotypical Native American mascots…self-esteem goes down, belief in community goes down, belief in achievement goes down, and mood goes down” (Friedman, n.d.).

Friedman’s study also gives evidence to how Native mascots exacerbates racism. “Similarly, if someone who is non-Native American sees a stereotypical image of a Native American mascot, their association with the Native American community also gets worse” (Friedman, n.d.).

Beyond the studies, we also recognize that the representation of Native people as mascots is often homogenous (presents all tribes as interchangeable), historical (pre-1900 at least), and highly stereotyped. The result of such displays are the perception that all Indigenous nations have the same cultural identifiers, that we exist only in the past, and that we are “savage,” warlike, or stoic (see: Noble Indian trope).

When young people (both Native and non-Native) are exposed to these images, they internalize their idea of what Native people are supposed to be. Clearly, the belief in homogeneous Indian figures harms our representation and challenges our ability to communicate issues facing our specific communities. Obviously, it also contributes to other cultural mishmashes (see: Victoria Secret model w/ headdress, leopard print, turquoise). The general concept of Native People as existing only in the past is something I find especially damaging. It is perpetuated across media, including the textbooks. In fact… “A staggering 87 per cent of references to American Indians in all 50 states’ academic standards portray them in a pre-1900 context” (Wade, 2017).

What effect does this have on us now? Great question! Obviously it means that Native issues are ignored. Few individuals have Indigenous issues on their radar at all. Thanks to Michael Friedman’s report and Lisa Wade’s examination of the effects of Indigenous erasure in our school system, the data tell us that when Indigenous issues are acknowledged, people  are inclined to think of us in a negative light. Which brings me to that pesky notion that we are “savage.” Or silent. Or spiritual and talk to wolves and eagles. These are all hurdles to gaining traction when first we must dismantle stereotypes about ourselves.

In 2013, NPR’s Tell Me More host Michel Martin spoke with Michael Friedman and NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam about the research Friedman conducted regarding the impacts of Indigenous mascots. “[The data help] us get past what’s been a constant refrain in the debate over these mascots. One side says, ‘Look, we’re offended.’ The other side says, ‘Look, we don’t mean to give any offense.’ And you end up with a he-said, she-said battle of opinions” (“Can a Mascot,” 2013).

Vedantam goes on to say that, “[t]he data seem to show at a pretty general level that there is a disconnect between how people think about these issues consciously and unconsciously.” You can have a positive view of Native mascots but unconsciously they are still causing harm. In summary, this isn’t about our delicate snowflake dispositions, but rather, the actual measurable harm that Native mascots have on our communities. No amount of “get over it” will change that. Now that you’re armed with all this wonderful knowledge, go out in the world and use it to make a difference.

To learn more, visit the links below and the ones used in this thread.

Readers can also access an interactive map showing the scope of Indigenous mascots used throughout the United States by accessing, “Native American Mascots Database.”
By Mariah Gladstone (2019)
Amskapiikuni, Tsalagi (Blackfeet, Cherokee)
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Protestors marching on the street holding signs to protect Native and Indigenous Mascots.
Protestor marching in street holding sign that reads "Not Your Mascot."
Racist mascots depicting Indigenous stereotypes impact Indigenous People negatively (their health, well-being, and connection to community) and serve to only exacerbate racism and racist beliefs by non-Indigenous people.

Capitalism & Consumer Culture

In my early days working as a Brand Strategist, I recall using a line in our workshops and educational materials around branding: “if you’re not a brand you’re a commodity.” Over-simplified and lacking nuance, the essence of this statement was that brands fulfill consumers’ needs and wants above and beyond providing a mere utilitarian function. The branding and advertising industry is based on not only satisfying consumers’ needs and wants, but also fabricating them when they don’t exist (consider the cola market and Chia Pets). Branding allows competitors to differentiate one another based on positioning, status, uniqueness, values, personality, image, and other non-tangible qualities.

While consumerism is defined as a social practice and process of consuming goods that are intended for exchange (Ertman & Williams, 2005), is, “a particular type of society permeated with unjust class structures and social lives dominated by consumer lifestyles, wherein a person’s well-being and happiness depend, to a large extent on their consumption habits (Bauman, 2005, 2007, 2009).” Quentin Wheeler-Bell (2014) explains further that consumer capitalism is tied to profit maximization and the reconfiguring of social spaces such as schools, the Internet, media outlets, and even the body.

Consumer capitalism is most evident in the changes we see in consumer behaviour and mass marketing (or advertising) over the last century. The emphasis change has gone from consumer “needs” to consumer “wants” and beyond that, an anticipation of how those wants will further evolve. Marketers anticipate these wants by designing and launching brands that become the “next best thing” and a “solution to a problem” you never knew you had in the first place.

Consumer capitalism combines profit maximization with a consumer’s self-concept in the practice of marketing beauty, diet, and fashion products that encourage buyers to (re)create their identities. Wheeler-Bell calls this the “pleasurable, expressive and performative aspect of the consumer” an integral part of the capitalism structure. We see this same type of consumer culture play out in the environmental movement where consumers purchase products to support their own identity and consumer narrative of being “environmental conscious” or “free-trade” supportive when the very system in which they consume is structured on inequality, exploitation, and profit maximization.

In actuality, consumer capitalism lures consumers into making purchases that reinforce narratives that can be racist (the “Noble Savage”), normalize racial segregation (“ethnically correct Barbie dolls”), and exasperate inequalities (“Darjeeling Tea”). Explore these topics more in the pieces below.

The Myth of the Ecologically Noble Savage

Image of small branches of leaves that are colourful - red, orange, yellow - showing the changing of the season from summer ot fall. Image meant to represent the nature and ecology.
Indigenous People have been the subject of many different racist stereotypes that put their lives and well-being in danger, even today.

The image of the noble savage developed many centuries ago in Western culture. From the beginning of European exploration and colonialism, Europeans described the “natives” they encountered primarily in negative terms, associating them with sexual promiscuity, indolence, cannibalism, and violence. The depictions changed as Romantic artists and writers rejected modernity and industrialization and called for people to return to an idealized, simpler past. That reactionary movement also celebrated Indigenous societies as simple people living in an Eden-like state of innocence. French painter Paul Gauguin’s works depicting scenes from his travels to the South Pacific are typical of this approach in their celebration of the colorful, easygoing, and natural existence of the natives. The continuing influence of these stories is evident in Disney’s portrayal of Pocahontas and James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar in which the primitive Na`vi are closely connected to and defenders of an exotic and vibrant natural world. Cameron’s depiction, which includes a sympathetic anthropologist, criticizes Western capitalism as willing to destroy nature for profit.

Despite its positive portrayals of Indigenous groups, the idea of the ecologically noble savage tends to treat Indigenous Peoples as an imagined “Other” constructed as the opposite of Western culture rather than endeavoring to understand the world views and complexities of Indigenous cultures. Similarly, a naive interpretation of Indigenous environmentalism may merely project an imaginary Western ideal onto another culture rather than make a legitimate observation about that culture on its own terms.

Transforming Barbie Dolls

Barbie doll figure wearing pink dress with white lace in the skirt portion.
Ethnically correct dolls and toys have often reinforced segregation and haven’t address systemic problems involving race and class.

Consumers in capitalist systems continuously attempt to reshape the meaning of the commodities that businesses brand, package, and market to us. The anthropologist Elizabeth Chin conducted ethnographic research among young African American children in a poor neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut, exploring the intersection of consumption, inequality, and cultural identity. Chin specifically looked at “ethnically correct” Barbie dolls, arguing that while they may represent some progress in comparison to the past when only white Barbies were sold, they also reinforce outdated understandings of biological race and ethnicity. Rather than dismantling race and class boundaries, the “ethnic” dolls create segregated toy shelves that in fact mirror the segregation that young black children experience in their schools and neighborhoods.

The young black girls that Chin researched were unable to afford these $20 brand-name dolls and typically played with less expensive, generic Barbie dolls that were white. The girls used their imaginations and worked to transform their dolls by giving them hairstyles like their own, braiding and curling the dolls’ long straight hair in order to integrate the dolls into their own worlds. A quick perusal of the Internet reveals numerous tutorials and blogs devoted to black Barbie hair styling, demonstrating that the young New Haven girls are not the only ones working to transform these store-bought commodities in socially meaningful ways.

Darjeeling Tea

Clear mug with tea next to a tea pot.
Colonialism created unequal systems around the world and consumer capitalism may not benefit those most impact by colonial systems.

The anthropologist Sarah Besky researched Darjeeling tea production in India to better understand how consumer desires are mapped onto distant locations. In India, tea plantation owners are attempting to reinvent their product for 21st century markets through the use of fair-trade certification and Geographical Indication Status (GI). GI is an international property-rights system, regulated by the World Trade Organization, that legally protects the rights of people in certain places to produce certain commodities. For example, bourbon must come from Kentucky, Mezcal can only be produced in certain parts of Mexico, and sparkling wine can only be called champagne if it originated in France.

Similarly, in order to legally be sold as “Darjeeling tea,” the tea leaves must come from the Darjeeling district of the Indian state of West Bengal. Besky explores how the meaning of Darjeeling tea is created through three interrelated processes: (1) extensive marketing campaigns aimed at educating consumers about the unique Darjeeling taste, (2) the application of international law to define the geographic borders within which Darjeeling tea can be produced, and (3) the introduction of tea plantation-based tourism.

What the Darjeeling label hides is the fact that tea plantations are highly unequal systems with economic relationships that date back to the colonial era: workers depend upon plantation owners not just for money but also for food, medical care, schools, and housing. Even when we pay more for Darjeeling tea, the premium price is not always returned to the workers in the form of higher wages. Bescky’s research shows how capitalism and market exchange shapes the daily lives of people around the world.

The work of a conscientious and responsible marketer is rarely seen in popular Hollywood films and HBO television series. There is an excess of glam, glitz, and spontaneous creativity, which seduces the young copy writer or designer into the industry that is measure by market share, profits, and share value. Both on and off-screen, there is a real representation problem in marketing and advertising. The industry is dominated by straight, white, men who have shaped our cultural and understanding of cultural norms through marketing imagery and messages. Female, BIPOC, disabled, and transgender consumers (just to name a few) are absent from the creative briefs and market research which lead to further representation problems.

I have long asked of my marketing students to examine the work of marketers outside of a capitalism framework: who is doing the work, who is getting hurt by the work, and who is most benefiting from the work? Marketing educators have a duty to emphasize to our students that the work of marketers should be considered a privilege, not a right. If we take our work seriously and engage in it more responsibly, there should be no excuses for perpetuating stereotypes, exploiting inequalities, and leading with bias.

Media Attributions

  • The two images depicting Indigenous People protesting the use of Indigenous mascots are by Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA, and are licensed under CC BY-2.0.
  • The image of six people holding signs is by McPhee, Keira and is licensed under CC BY-2.0
  • The image of the colourful leaves outdoors is by Elisa Stone on Unsplash
  • The image of the doll in a pink dress with white lace is by XINYI SONG on Unsplash
  • The image of a small beige teapot and clear glass teacup is by Manki Kim on Unsplash

Text Attributions

References

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Davidson, H. (2018, October 31). How Racism Against Native People Is Normalized, From Mascots to Costumes. Teen Vogue. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/how-racism-against-native-people-is-normalized-from-mascots-to-costumes.

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Hus, T. (2020, September 27). Aunt Jemima Brand to Change Name and Image Over Racial Stereotype. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/17/business/media/aunt-jemima-racial-stereotype.html.

Native American Mascot Database. (n.d.). Retrieved September 1, 2019 from https://nativeamericanmascotdatabase.com/database/.

Rogers, R.A. (2006). From cultural exchange to transculturation: A review and reconceptualization of cultural appropriation. Communication Theory, 16(4), 474-503.

Wade, L. (2017, June 14). U.S. Schools Are Teaching Our Children That Native Americans Are History. psmag.com/social-justice/u-s-schools-teaching-children-native-americans-history-95324.

Westerman, M. (1989, March 28). Death of the Frito Bandito. American Demographics.

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Ziff, B. H., & Rao, P. V. (1997). Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

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