The past three two decades (the 1980s to present) have seen significant shifts in African American’s media representation. The negative and stereotypical images are still present but increasingly being overshadowed by positive ones. Though the representation shift started in the 1960s, this essay will concentrate on the period beginning in the 1980s, which is when the culture gained a significant presence on different media.
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The trend in African American representation in media commercials will hereby get investigated. Critics have historically focused on popular culture and the general media but less on product commercials that are media establishments’ lifelines. This approach provides an overview of how individual companies prefer to depict African Americans.
Various mediums have been used to generate positive African American images. Most of these mediums (music, film, books, and many more) observe the persisting negative representation and consequently embark on overshadowing them with positive images. This approach has indeed been successful in achieving success. Product commercials use these media to reach on to African American consumer base. There is however one major difference between commercials and the general media approach: product commercials take the actual African American lifestyle and experiences and broadcast the same in different media.
The advertising companies understand that depicting positive African American images lead to rising demand of products being fronted to them, whereas negative image depiction could lead to declining product demand and rising marketing costs.
Television has especially been used in the depiction of African Americans images. The medium has been most effective in various other processes of improving African American images. For instance, it has Television that has succeeded in transforming the image of African American women from Aunt Jemima in mid 20th century to Oprah in the 21st century (Riggs 1992). In recent decades, Television has become a powerful tool of illustrating African American consumerism that companies have been ready to exploit.
The middle class has especially been the target for marketers, who see the improved living standards as ripe markets that need to be supplied with a variety of commodities. Positive representation has therefore been used to attract this class’ attention, often with much success. Independent advertisers have also embarked on exploiting the medium in passing their commercial messages.
The success of marketers in reaching various segments of African American markets arises from studying and getting accurate information and subsequently drafting marketing strategies along those lines. However, extensive use of the middle class has been accused of creating an untrue picture that the cultural group has, as a whole, progressed economically (Bogle 2001b). This is in consideration that a significant portion of African Americans are still trying to make ends meet. Middle-class consumerism, therefore, remains a dream for many despite marketers’ insistence on economic progress that has been made by African Americans. But the advertising companies are not ready to listen to such cries, the reason being that respective plans have been paying off handsomely.
McDonald’s has been a leader in the use of commercials to reach African American consumers, which has been a drastic shift from the traditional approach. Just like other American companies, McDonald’s seeks to exploit the market potential in middle-class African Americans. Its television commercials usually illustrate middle-class families enjoying meals on its outlets. Incorporating this cultural group into its commercials is a result of understanding that depicting a positive image would lead to successful marketing.
Results for this market leader in fast foods have not been disappointing, which explains why competitors have been following suit. Taking such steps in the fast foods’ competitive industry has continued to illustrate the ever-increasing importance of incorporating the country’s diverse cultural groups in individual companies’ target market.
McDonald’s has gone to the extent of adopting African American culture in its television commercials. This is especially illustrated by its ever famous “da-ba-da-baa-I’m-lovin’-it” Jazz jingle (Bogle 2001a). These have resulted in many African Americans associating with McDonald’s commercials and subsequently flock to company outlets. Other than television commercials, the company has been undertaking other aggressive urban marketing targeted to the cultural group.
Other approaches to cultivating loyalty have included funding and participating in neighborhood activities. All these marketing campaigns converge on television commercials that help remind respective target groups of the company products through positive image depiction. This approach has indeed resulted in people slowly developing a positive mental African American picture.
The success achieved by McDonald’s through the depiction of a positive African American image has resulted in many other companies following suit. It is not unique to find regional and even nationwide commercials targeted exclusively at African Americans. As with McDonald’s, other advertising companies are pressured to have a positive representation in order to win the targeted African American target customer base. Companies embarking on this process are also reporting positive feedback as their products become popular among African American clientele. The success provides hope that companies would continue with their positive depiction. They after all understand backtracking on current trends could see respective market share shrinking significantly.
The commercials’ extensive use of the middle class as a representative of African American population is a step in the right direction, though not all have reached this economic class. What is depicted in the commercials is, indeed, an illustration that African American depictions are becoming more realistic. The American society can now see what the rest of the media has not been showing because respective ratings would not be as high. The commercials are further putting pressure on respective mainstream media to embark on developing the attitude of programming and publication of realistic images, failure of which lead to shrinking viewer-ship base. In addition, more companies are being lured to follow into the step of McDonald’s and others that have continued to benefit from positive image depictions.
Owing to consumer power held by African Americans, companies have little choice other than advertising using realistic images. This trend demands that companies embark on following using best practices in showing proper images. In this regard, African Americans could be said to be demanding better representation by the media. It is in fact the beginning of a trend that will see the development of proper images. As just mentioned, consumer power held by this cultural group would continue demanding nothing less. Companies that fail to illustrate positive images would see consumers in this segment moving to competitors, exactly what they have been fighting to control.
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This positive representation is destined to be improved in the near future because more competitors are shifting towards this approach. There is a greater possibility of each player improving on the image in order to outdo the other. In addition, individual television stations are most likely to embark on improving their representation of this cultural group in order to attract more ads from companies with a similar approach.
Commercials have therefore become some of the most important tools of improving positive African American images in the media. Their success rises from fact that companies using them are set to benefit immensely from the increased market demand for respective products. Commercials’ success has further originated from improved goodwill from African Americans who feel highly appreciated through realistic representation.
There has been a domino effect of positive representation being picked by several other companies, which has resulted in a proliferation of the same from within industries. All this illustrates the powers of the market in bringing change in an area that has continued to be taken for granted many years after the resumption of civil rights in mid 20th century. Indeed, what the commercials have achieved overshadows what other attempts of improving the depiction would have attained. Companies have finally embarked on seeing the many benefits that would accrue by just having a realistic representation of African Americans in the media.
There is no doubt that many more companies would follow this route. Unlike in other attempts to improve African American image on the media, this one (of using commercials) is all mutually beneficial. On one hand, is African Americans themselves feel more appreciated by advertising companies and their collaborators. The realistic depiction of their lives is something that has been long overdue. On the other hand are the companies whose products have been gaining market share by the day, McDonald’s for instance. In the words of Cashmore (1997) the overall beneficiary of realistic representation has in this consideration been the American people.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Mulattoes, Coons, Bucks and Mammies. New York: Continum. 2001a.
Bogle, Donald. Primetime Blues. New York: Farrar,Straus & Giroux, 2001b.
Riggs, Marlon. Color Adjustment Documentary. Cashmore, Ellis. Black Culture Industry. London: Routledge, 1997.