Canadian ads display racial bias: study

Researchers at the University of Toronto find minorities under-represented and portrayed in stereotypical ways.

Canada is known for its multiculturalism but its commercials do not reflect that, according to a recent study into racial bias in Canadian advertising.

In fact, research out of the University of Toronto found minorities both under-represented and characterized in ways that don’t reflect the day-to-day lives of Canadians.

The findings are the result of an 18-month study by U of T professor Shyon Baumann and PhD grad Loretta Ho, which was recently published in the Canadian Review of Sociology. The pair looked at 244 food and dining ads that aired during primetime on CTV, Global and CBC. They say they focused on the food and dining category because of its broad target audience and because the production and consumption of food plays an important and symbolic role across cultures.

They found black and Asian actors under-represented compared with white actors in the commercials. In total, 87% of actors in these commercials were white, compared with their 80% representation in Canadian society, according to census data. Meanwhile, groups such as East and Southeast Asians, were in just under 4% of ads, despite people of Chinese heritage alone accounting for 4% of the total population. Blacks were actually over-represented in ads compared with the proportion of the Canadian population, likely due to ads produced in the U.S. airing here.

Aside from minorities being under-represented, the researchers noted significant associations based on race.

The researchers grouped the ads into six categories, called schemas - broad traits connected to a group that give people cues on how to behave in social settings – to describe the ways different cultures were portrayed. They found whites were associated with nostalgia, natural things, highbrow culture and a stereotypical nuclear family. For example an ad for Europe’s Best food brand portrays a family with high cultural and economic capital, including Baroque background music and an elegant dining table. The authors say in the sample of commercials they used, this representation of high cultural and economic status was associated only with white characters.

Meanwhile, blacks were portrayed in just one way, as blue-collar workers with a lower socio-economic status. They also appear in a high proportion of fast food ads. East and Southeast Asians were portrayed always as unemotional underachievers who offer robotic responses, the researchers says.

As an example they cite an ad for Baskin Robbins Ice Cream in which an Asian granddaughter bemoans getting an F on a test to her grandfather, declaring that her mom had promised ice cream at Baskin Robbins if she managed an A. Her granddad responds by changing the F to an A and tells her he’ll see her in the car. But rather than being happy, the granddaugther stares at the test with no expression on her face.

The granddaughter in the spot communicates achievement-oriented and robotic traits, the authors say, and also plays to the stereotype of the overachieving student who, despite her grandfather getting her ice cream, is still sad about the low mark.

However, the authors note advertising is particularly susceptible to stereotypical depictions of social groups, not because marketers seek to offend but because the ads are reflective of the dominant cultural perceptions for these groups.

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