In 1994, William O’Barr published Culture and the Ad: Exploring the World of Otherness in Advertisement. O’Barr attempted to look at how the portrayal of minorities in advertisement had changed over time.1 He particularly looked at print advertising from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. An important aspect to O’Barr’s analysis was the use of deconstruction.
Deconstruction looks to critically read texts to find the latent biases and meanings held within it.2 While the original use was applied to texts, Catherine Lutz and Jane Collin applied it to National Geographic photos and later O’Barr to advertising.3 O’Barr found that in the 1950’s and 1960’s, African American men were primarily bellmen, train porters, elevator operators, or shoe-shine boys and women mainly as domestics and cooks.4 However, this changed in the 1970’s when the portrayal of African Americans started to include executives over those positions previously used. O’Barr attempted to show how cultural views had changed over this period of several decades. It was through advertising that a cultural shift was shown in who could be what and how Americans perceived race.
Can this be applied to our world now? How can O’Barr’s assertion that advertising can show cultural view shifts be seen in advertising today? Let’s look at some more modern ads.
(three ads: from left to right, a Target ad featuring a girl with a physical disability, another Target ad featuring a girl with down syndrome, finally, an ad for Marriott showing a gay couple with their children)
(two ads: from left to right, a Nivea ad that features male based hair and skin products, a Dove ad for body wash that featured a African American woman taking off her shirt to reveal a white woman underneath)
(three ads: from left to right, a Mr.Clean ad with a woman and her daughter cleaning, a Bosch ad showing the evolution of their washing machines and a woman standing to each era of machines, a Dolce & Gabbana ad showing men hovering over a woman lying on the floor)
According to O’Barr, we are able to discern cultural views from each of these ads through deconstruction. The first three ads show inclusivity. These ads include those with both physical and developmental disorders and a gay couple with children. These additions to modern advertising show that views on these aspects of life are not as disregarded or discriminated against as they have been in the past. This shows a cultural shift to be inclusive of several ways of life.
The next two ads focus more on hygiene and beauty products. The Nivea ad shows an African American man with short hair grabbing the disembodied head of an African American with an afro. The text says to “re-civilize yourself”. This could be interpreted that wearing your hair natural as an African American is still looked down upon. There is either a dirtiness or an uncivilized notion associated with it. The Dove ad acts in a similar fashion. It’s an ad for body wash and shows an African American woman pulling her shirt off to show a white woman underneath. While some would say it’s an oversite, it could imply that darker skin is perceived as dirtier than that of lighter skins. These two ads may show that darker skin and natural African American hair is less desirable as a beauty standard.
The final three ads feature mainly women. The first one shows simply a mother and daughter cleaning. Seems simple and innocent enough but women have primarily dominated cleaning and cooking ads. The washing machine ad is like the previous one. However, the interesting fact of this ad is that while the fashion and technology change within it, the idea of a woman being associated with laundry doesn’t. The final ad is for clothing. This shows men predatorially standing and leaning over one single woman. It shows her in a sexual and vulnerable position. This could suggest submissive and sexual stereotypes of woman still remain under the public conscious.
While comparing modern ads to those of, let’s say, O’Barr’s “modern” advertisements, would require a study in its own right, it still provides us with a rich example of the applications of deconstruction. It shows that these ads are not just flat images and videos but rather brief glimpses into cultural ideals. Through deconstruction we can find the stereotypes we’ve held and the others we’ve abandoned. It would be insightful to see how O’Barr’s study could be translated into a newer era.
1- Moberg, Mark. Engaging Anthropological Theory a Social and Political History. London: Taylor & Francis, 2017. p. 324
2- Moberg, Mark. Engaging Anthropological Theory: a Social and Political History. p. 316
3- Moberg, Mark. Engaging Anthropological Theory: a Social and Political History. p. 323
4- Moberg, Mark. Engaging Anthropological Theory: a Social and Political History. p. 324