Images function on many different levels, both reflecting society and playing an active part in recreating that society - Do representations in advertising reflect the diversity in our multicultural society?

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Images function on many different levels, both reflecting society and playing an active part in recreating that society. Do representations in advertising reflect the diversity in our multicultural society?

An advertisement is more than a label attached to a given product or commodity to highlight its availability in the market place. Its importance is as paramount as the commodity in which it is deeply embedded. Consumers do not simply purchase the product or service out of necessity, but moreover because of the image that is constructed within the advertisement that accompanies the commodity. They are making an ideological transaction- they are buying the image or statement that the product says about its user, procuring not just objects but the ideas and meanings carefully orchestrated by the advertisers.

The world depicted by advertisers is more than “ideal”, it is portrayed as real and attainable, the only world in which we should live and flourish as a consequence. Individual advertisements actively infer certain meanings and reproduce particular social ideologies which can subsequently reinforce inequality and domination of a preferred culture in society. Judith Williamson argues that advertisements ”do not impose their meaning upon us from above but we construct the meaning of an advertisement, at the same time reproducing dominant norms”. Williamson continues that readers will “fill in the gaps deliberately left by advertisers, which often have significant class, gender and racial overtones”.

Advertisements are sometimes designed to exclude particular viewers from seeing themselves in the advertisement via the use of models of a particular race. Pivotal to the effectiveness of an advertisement is identity- the consumer must be able to identify that the representation in the advertisement, and therefore the commodity, is targeted at them. It is at this point that the consumer embraces the image’s meaning and is now unknowingly reinforcing particular aspects of a dominant ideology. Williamson comments that this subjective  interpretation is “done almost instantly so that it is thought to be natural or common sense to view the advertisement in this manner”.

A  1999 report for the Independent Television Commission studied the presence of multicultural minorities in advertising on television. The most common commodity category featuring ethnic minorities was “Food and Drink”. This accounted for twenty per cent of all ethnic advertisements. When advertisers wish to place emphasis on foreign cuisine, they commonly use an actor that hails from the same origin as that food or drink. For example, an advertisement for Lilt uses a black-Caribbean as its central character. Not only is the drink and the actor in an indigenous setting, a Rastafarian voice-over is employed to further add to the authenticity of the tropical location and the drink. However, the intonation and pitch adopted in the voice-over is very deliberate- it is slow and exaggerated. This harbours overtones of the stereotypical perception of the Rastafarian –laid back, cool and relaxed, all qualities that the advertisers wish Lilt to be associated with. Furthermore, embedded within the cliched image of the Rastafarian is the notion that they are explicitly all marajuana smokers, lifted from the notably slow and drawn voice-over. This further fuels the preconception of the ultra laid-back and cool Rastafarian, is more appealing to the youth market at which the drink is targeted, and encourages them to buy in to this perpetuated stereotype.

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Continuing in their report the ITC noted significant findings in the tone of advertisements featuring ethnic characters. Fifty per cent of adverts depicting people of “Far Eastern” origin had a “Wacky/Humourous” or “Surreal” tone, at least thirty per cent more than other ethnic groups in the same category. An advertisement for Oriental Express ready meals again uses a cultural stereotype, this time with a “humourous” slant. A Japanese man is speaking at a high tempo and in a high pitch. He states that the meal is "ideal for big lazy like you”. Again the advertisers are nurturing a stereotype, ...

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