Stuck in the Sidelines Racial Triangulation in Super Bowl Commercials
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Literature Review
Limitations & Further Research
Abstract As both a producer and product of popular culture, advertising is already known to reflect and reinforce existing racial inequalities. Yet few studies have examined such portrayals in television’s most highly valued spots: Super Bowl commercials. Fewer still have sought to apply the concept of racial triangulation to media imagery to see if Asians, Blacks, and Whites are valorized relative to one another, and to observe how Asians are civically ostracized through the perpetual foreigner stereotype. This study compares the representations of Whites, Blacks, and Asians in Super Bowl commercials from 1998, 2008, and 2018. Quantitative analysis found that Blacks and Asians were underrepresented in Super Bowl commercials until 2018, when they were both overrepresented and Whites were underrepresented. Proportional disparities were also found in characters’ age groups, role prominence, and relationships, as well as in the product categories and settings that framed them. Simultaneous textual analysis revealed a variety of nuanced stereotypes unique to White women, Blacks, and Asians, and brought to light possible sources of intergroup and inter-subgroup tension and viewer effects.
This may be the attitude held by most viewers regarding day-to-day television commercials, but for the Super Bowl, statistics show otherwise. The Super Bowl is the most prized advertising opportunity for companies due to its high viewership, and the subsequent high-production, high-cost shorts are arguably the most anticipated commercials of the year for TV audiences. Given their weightiness, we might reasonably assume that the people in the ads are featured intentionally. For this reason, Super Bowl commercials are especially critical to the way we analyze racial and/or ethnic representations in the media. On a platform where every second counts toward a brand’s image and success, who do they choose to portray? And how are these people portrayed? Despite the quote by Eric Silver, what we see on television leaves an impression on us and reflects societal views about social groups. American historian Roland Marchand (1985) describes advertisements as social tableaus, for their ability to depict people “in such a way as to suggest their relationships to each other or to a larger social structure” (p. 165). Ads are designed first and foremost with a selling strategy in mind. They do not always intend to reflect society as is; rather, they aim to create an idealized scenario in which viewers can comfortably envision themselves. In this way, ads reveal society’s aspirations more so than its reality. By meshing reality with fantasy, advertisements end up portraying what are, in the creators’ minds, the most desirable social groups and situations for the product, providing all the more reason to study ads as textual manifestations of societal ideals.
“ Advertising is what happens on TV when people go to the bathroom –Eric Silver, Chief Creative Officer McCann North America ”
Literature REview
RQ1A How do depictions of Whites, Blacks, and Asians in Super Bowl commercials contrast from one another?
RQ1B What different stereotypes are utilized for each racial group?
RQ2 How can contrasting positive and negative stereotypical representations of each group inadvertently triangulate Whites, Blacks, and Asians?
RQ3 How have White, Black, and Asian portrayals in Super Bowl commercials changed between 1998, 2008, and 2018?
1998 2008 2018
Acknowledgments Thank you to my advisors, Dr. Martinez, Dr. Hogan, and Dr. Sample, for preparing me with the communication and digital studies background that brought me to this thesis, for providing me with encouragement, critiques, and nuanced insights, and for trusting me to undertake this ambitious study ever since I was a sophomore. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know your points of interest and styles along the way. Another thanks to all of my fellow communication studies majors for commiserating with me throughout the process, and offering me emotional support and solidarity in this arduous, two-semester journey. There is truly nothing as gratifying as hearing, “I’ve got a shit ton to write, too”. A final thank you goes to my family, friends near and far, and roommates who endured endless complaints yet still always asked me how my thesis was coming along. I myself suspected I would never see the light of day again (but alas, I did). This thesis earned high honors from the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies and the Communication Studies department at Davidson College.