There’s nothing new about the idea that the images projected in the mass media have often perpetuated negative stereotypes that further disenfranchise women, the working class, and minority groups. What is newsworthy is the fact that in the second decade of the 21st century, the ways in which major media buy in to these stereotypes are sometimes indistinguishable from what was produced closer to the dawn of television over 60 years ago. Here are some recent, disappointing examples:
Florida Department of Citrus
“Take on the Day” is one of the Florida Department of Citrus’s media campaigns, and it extols the benefits of the morning glass of orange juice. A few sips and you can feel your body and mind steeling against every curve ball the day may hurl at you. The problem is the human representation of these energy-zapping, immune-depressing stressors and of who the victims are.
I found the first commercial I saw disturbing, but in an effort to be sure that it wasn’t anomalous, I checked out the organization’s entire series. In ad after ad, one thing was clear: middle-class Americans had to fortify themselves against an onslaught of mishaps that were personified in large part by antagonists who were blatantly (and stereotypically) working class, people of color, or both.
A look at all four advertisements portrays white, middle class protagonists at the starts of their days getting a preview of the challenges to come. From a cable guy who will show up late and an unreliable colleague to an IT professional and math teacher with bad news to a toll booth worker and a general contractor, these ads not only play on awful stereotypes but they depict life’s daily challenges as people of color and dress these challenges in working class uniforms and tool belts. For good measure, one ad throws in a super-clingy, stalker-like woman who seems to be madly (and by madly, I do mean insanely) in love with the protagonist after just one date – rounding out the trifecta of classism, racism, and sexism.
Another example of “social harm in advertising” comes from the immune-supporting energy drink Emergen-C. In this series of ads, regular people describe how this supplement gives them added protection against life’s stressors. The ads begin with real-life images of our main characters and then morph into animated cartoons of the stressful events they endure. In one, a commuter named Jeff (yet another white man) describes how “most days, just getting to work is work.” Now, this ad wins the award for the presentation of the most class and race stereotypes in the shortest time. In about three seconds (I timed it) we see cartoon Jeff on a subway suffering the slings and arrows of a Black woman and her crying baby, a man with a gold chain and boom box on his shoulders (I guess Jeff was reflecting on commuting in the ’80s), and a group of brownish-grayish-faced Mexican Mariachi players who are literally no taller than Jeff’s waist. Thank God for Emergen-C.
The idea that we lead busy lives and suffer an array of daily assaults seems to provide the perfect context in which to unleash our deeply-held fears, beliefs, and illusions about exactly where these threats come from. Vitamin C and bias seem to be the threads that connect these advertisements. If only Vitamin C had the same effect on prejudice as it does on the common cold.