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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.
Super Bowl Commercials
Super Bowl Audience
White Americans in the Media
Black Americans in the Media
Asian Americans in the Media
In 1999, Dr. Claire Jean Kim published an article proposing an original understanding of the experience of Asians in America called the racial triangulation theory. The purpose motivating this theory was twofold. First, Kim wanted to use a “field of racial positions” in order to “move the conceptualization of racial dynamics ‘beyond Black and White’” (p. 106) and update scholarly conversations of race relations to include relatively contemporary immigrant groups such as Asians. Second, Kim saw a need to demonstrate how Asians have been racialized relative to and through interaction with Whites and Blacks, resulting in a uniquely triangulated location in the field of racial positions.
The unique positioning of Asians results from two connected processes to evaluate various racial groups: relative valorization and civic ostracism. Together, these processes can be visualized as two axes that form a multidimensional field of racial positions (see Figure 1 below).
The process of relative valorization refers to a dominant group’s (Whites) determination of one subordinate group (Asians) as superior to another subordinate group (Blacks), while simultaneously maintaining both groups as inferior to Whites. This valorization occurs by the same cultural and racial standards that define the model minority myth. The work of journalists, politicians, and scholars has constructed Asians as a homogenous collective whose values of diligence, family solidarity, respect for education, and self-sufficiency are directly responsible for the group’s success (Kim, 1999). By generalizing Asians into one stereotyped group, the model minority myth produces what Kim terms a “double elision,” whereby the distinctions among Asian subgroups and between Asian Americans and Asians are erased.
The second facet of the theory, civic ostracism, occurs when a dominant group (Whites) classifies a subordinate group (Asians) as perpetually foreign and unassimilable to prevent them from politicizing and obtaining civic membership.
Kim mentions that the earliest Asian immigrants came from China during Reconstruction and were sought after by White Southern elites as a source of cheap labor on plantations and railroads. The labor of these Chinese immigrants combined with their civic disenfranchisement made them the ideal pawns to reestablish White dominance after the Civil War.
Civic ostracism in modern day is less overt but still tenaciously perpetuated through rhetoric that defines Asian Americans largely by their heritage. When describing Asians’ achievements, this rhetoric discredits the intent, ardor, and tribulation behind the work, instead highlighting the workers’ “natural” inclination for success. This framing recalls a study by Mastro, Blecha, and Seate (2011) which found that news media tend to attribute Black athletes’ accomplishments to their “innate talent” and attribute those of White athletes to “intelligence and hard work” (p. 539). Though both may seem like positive illustrations, the language credits Black athletes’ success to intrinsic values and White athletes’ success to extrinsic values, as if to say that Black athletes are predestined for athletic success, and that rather than earning their acclaim they were merely born into it.
Figure 1. Kim, C. J. (1999). The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans. Politics & Society, 27(1), 105–138. https://doi.org/10.1177/0032329299027001005
Xu & Lee (2013)
Using data from the General Social Survey (GSS) from the 1990s and 2000s, Xu and Lee analyzed attitudes toward Asians in relation to Blacks and Whites. The attitudes were measured along the dimensions of relative valorization and civic ostracism, in a sense trying to retroactively test the soundness of Kim’s racial triangulation theory.
The study found that Asians were rated as high as, if not higher than, Whites in racial valorization and were perceived in a position similar yet not necessarily lower compared to Blacks when it came to civic ostracism. These findings did not fully support the specificities of the racial triangulation theory but they affirmed Kim’s concept of the multidimensionality of racial relativism.
In addition to testing the public perception of Asians, Xu and Lee suggested that Hispanics are also racially triangulated because, similar to Asians, they are (1) used for cheap labor, (2) fit into the category of contemporary American immigrants, and (3) are continually perceived to be outsiders regardless of their immigrant or generational status. Consequently, the researchers conducted a parallel analysis of attitudes toward Hispanics in order to test this hypothesis and found that the theory of racial triangulation was not as prescriptive to Hispanics as it was to Asians because, although Hispanics were likewise ostracized by the public, they were rated differently on various group traits. This last result reinforces the racial triangulation theory’s unique applicability to Asians.
Dalisay & Tan (2009)1
Dalisay and Tan found that televised portrayals that reinforced the model minority stereotype led to positive stereotyping of Asian Americans by White participants, while televised portrayals countering the model minority stereotype led to negative stereotyping. Additionally, White participants who viewed both model minority portrayals and counter-stereotyped portrayals of Asians evaluated African Americans more negatively than participants in the control condition, who did not view any racial attitudes in their media.
Social Cognitive Theory (SCT)2
Social Identity Theory (SIT)
How do depictions of Whites, Blacks, and Asians in Super Bowl commercials contrast from one another?
What different stereotypes are utilized for each racial group?
How can contrasting positive and negative stereotypical representations of each group inadvertently triangulate Whites, Blacks, and Asians?
How have White, Black, and Asian portrayals in Super Bowl commercials changed between 1998, 2008, and 2018?
I conducted a content analysis of commercials aired during Super Bowls XXXII, XLII, and LII (1998, 2008, and 2018). These three years were chosen primarily to observe change over time at temporally equidistant points.
Only commercials aired between the four quarters of the game were included, as pre-game commercials were not available for all three years.
Commercials featuring characters who were not originally intended to appear in an advertisement were excluded from the sample. This included film trailers and promotions for television or streaming service (i.e. Hulu, Netflix, and HBO) shows, as the majority of them used pre-filmed and pre-edited clips from existing content, and thus the the characters shown were not written and casted with the intention of being in a commercial.
Commercials with recorded live reactions of non-actors were also excluded, as well as promotions with montages of user-generated content, because the people in these media were assumed to be prioritized for their authentic actions rather than their race/ethnicity. Ads promoting the National Football League were not included as they were only uploaded for one of the three years, and the majority promoted future broadcast events for the organization using clips of football players from previous games.
The content analysis took place over the course of three weeks in January and February of 2018 using the grounded theory3 process.
For each ad, I began with an initial viewing to confirm that the video was relevant to my analysis (i.e. featured humans), as well as form an impression on the brand, message, and number of characters. Preliminary notes were logged in the second and subsequent viewings, capturing the (1) year, (2) title, (3) URL, (4) brand, (5) duration, (6) agency, (7) quarter aired, (8) product category, and (9) setting for each commercial, with the help of descriptive information provided by the databases (see Table 25 in the Appendix). Key topics were recorded in the additional notes.
Further attribute, descriptive, and process coding was done for each distinguishable person or group of people. The attributes included (1) race(s) and/or ethnicity, (2) gender, (3) age, (4) celebrity status and name, (5) prominence, (6) speaking role, and (7) relationship (see Table 26 in the Appendix). Geographic regions were also noted for Asian characters from visual inference and/or cultural markers.
The second cycle of coding followed an axial coding4 method. Through an inductive process, all the recorded data were analyzed for overarching themes. For this study, these themes mostly involved racial stereotypes, patterns of marginalization, and confining roles. The data were pored over until they became “theoretically saturated” (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, p. 110), or until they stopped adding new value to the concepts.
As the final step data analysis, the categorical data were calculated into percentages when appropriate and organized into tables.
All ads portraying real actors and animated humans were included in this analysis. When observable, the races of these characters were categorized as (1) White, (2) Black, (3) Asian, (4) Hispanic/Latinx, (5) Middle Eastern, and/or (5) Native American. All characters were coded regardless of whether they were discernibly U.S.-American. For the purposes of coding, Blacks were defined as people with African-Caribbean and African ancestry. An attempt was made to note intersecting Hispanic/Latinx identities when apparent, but there were very few visual cues for Hispanic/Latinxs overall so the attempt proved unfruitful. When possible, Asians were subcategorized as (1) East Asian, (2) South Asian, or (3) Southeast Asian/Pacific Islander. These distinctions relied on cultural signifiers, physical appearance, and accents.
In addition to race, the characters were coded according to their gender, age group, role prominence, and relationships. The commercials themselves were coded by setting, product category, and the quarter of the game during which they aired. Product brands and the creative agencies responsible for strategizing the ads were also noted for personal interest and ease of reference.
White women were shown numerous times receiving aid from men. This aid usually came in the form of introduction to a convenient product that resolved a woman’s problem. A modern day, capitalist’s delusion of a damsel in distress thus lives on in the form of the woman who needs to spend in order to achieve happiness, or at least to mitigate difficulty.
One of just three Asian portrayals from 1998 is assumed by an Asian American woman who is part of a jury working toward a conclusion on a robbery case. The East Asian woman is only depicted for a fleeting moment, with less than two seconds of total screen time in the 30-second commercial, and has no spoken lines. Her heritage is not especially highlighted but her presence as the only Asian American woman in the jury is tokenized, especially considering that the rest of the jury—save for one Black man—is White. The one Black man is likewise shown for only a brief moment and has no lines. Neither of the two are characterized by stereotypical representations, but their singularity in the room shows the intent of their inclusion.
Two out of the total of three Asian characters in this year were South Asian men playing natives of a travel destination. They acted as background characters to two White protagonists. Because the Asians in this commercial were characterized principally as foreigners, their portrayal reinforces the stereotypical perception that Asians are by nature not American. By this sense the commercial enforces the civic ostracism of Asians by limiting them to the role of the foreigner and, specifically, the Asian native.
In this commercial, a White man is portrayed as the driver of a low rider car, which is a culturally Mexican-American artifact. Even when given the opportunity to include an ethnic minority, the agency behind the ad decided to actively exclude them from the written narrative, while still including that ethnicity’s cultural artifact as the main concept of their TV spot. In essence, the object of the ethnicity enjoys representation before the subject, while the extraneous character is made, by default, a White man.
Building off the Black athlete stereotype, one ad for athletic fashion brand Under Armour featuring a variety of White and Black athletes gave distinct treatment to each group. During a montage of exercising athletes, White men and women were shown doing bodyweight exercises like crunches and sliding side-to-side on ice, and close-ups of their faces revealed determined expressions. The Black athletes, on the other hand, were shown in all cases exercising against some kind of unnatural force (i.e. bungee cords, chains). These three portrayals are symbolic of the disadvantageous forces that Black people endure by existing in a systemically racist country, providing a visual demonstration of the extra effort they must expend in comparison to Whites, who are allowed to move their bodies freely and without resistance throughout greater society. Additionally, the chains and cords strapped around the characters’ bodies are reminiscent of the enslavement of Black Americans and the continued exploitation of their labor through the prison-institution system. It is difficult to determine the intent behind these Black portrayals, and if these messages were indeed purposeful, what the motivation of the company would be. If not intentional, this commercial stands as a plea to agencies and companies to consider the symbolic as well as literal meaning of their minority representations.
Asian men that were depicted by humans were desexualized in multiple instances. The comedic focus of one Bud Light commercial centered entirely on minority men’s lack of sexual success. Every single Black and Asian man in the commercial is desexualized and their foreign accents are mocked, and whereas the Hispanic/Latino man faces rejection, he is not made a central comedic spectacle. Not unrelatedly, the company responsible for the ad concept is LatinWorks, a Hispanic advertising agency under parent group Omnicom Group. The ad itself was written with the help of Honduran-American comedian Carlos Mencia. Interestingly, all of the commercials that have thus far stereotyped Asians have been written by fellow racial/ethnic minorities. This is not only telling of the pervasiveness of stereotypes, but also serves as evidence that minority treatment is individualized for each racial/ethnic group, to the extent that the ridicule of out-groups can cause no personal offense or sympathy, and affirms a tenet of the social identity theory, which dictates that people will intentionally seek negative qualities of out-groups to elevate their own self-concepts.
Tension was surprisingly found amongst Asian subgroup portrayals. One animated advertisement illustrated a South Asian male protagonist that used the online business service Salegenie.com to find more sales leads. According to AdAge.com (2008), the ad was written by Vin Gupta, the CEO of the parent company to Salesgenie.com. Similar to the animated protagonist of the commercial, Gupta immigrated to the U.S. from India, was a father to multiple children, and eventually became a successful businessman. It is likely, then, that the story of the sales hero was intended to reflect the CEO’s own story. The same company aired a second Super Bowl commercial that year that did not technically fit into the sample but demanded acknowledgement. This commercial was similarly animated and advertised the same website but the main characters were two personified panda bears. A number of symbols in this advertisement point to the intention of East Asian representation, such as the pandas, the pandas’ names, the bamboo, the main characters’ accents, and even the font used for the furniture store signage. Yet East Asian humans are never actually depicted. Instead, the characters are reduced to cultural symbols of the region and dehumanized in the process. Compare this advertisement with the previous, and we see a clear prioritization of Asian subgroups. Alone, the first commercial with the South Asian protagonist tells a positive, resonant, and truth-inspired story of an Asian immigrant’s journey to success. However, in consideration with the second ad, the first ad’s message becomes not one of general immigrant success but specifically South Asian immigrant aptitude.
One new observation was that every single Black male celebrity featured was a professional athlete. Their common profession affirms Bowen and Schmid’s (1997) finding that Black men were frequently depicted in as athletes in magazine ads as a signifier for strength or power. It can also be said that the trend connects with Seiter’s (1995) claim that Black people are used to make products trendy. In the case of these 2008 ads, the trend factor is tripled, because the actors are (1) well-known celebrities with favorable reputations, (2) professional athletes presented before a demographic that is already assumed to laud athleticism given the focus of the media event, and (3) Black.
The first East Asian male protagonist observed in the study appeared in a technology commercial for the brand Monster. The main character was played by an already reputable hip-hop/rap artist and internet celebrity called RiceGum. According to AdWeek (2017), RiceGum played a younger version of the company founder, Noel Lee, who likewise is an Asian American man. Differing from the 2008 ad depicting a South Asian man’s success story, this commercial illustrated the founding of the company itself and used real actors to do so. In one scene, the Asian protagonist was shown constructing a pair of headphones himself diligently through the night, calling forth the stereotypical belief that Asians are defined by their work. Yet since the scene fit into an actual and personal success story, it can be said that there was no intent to stereotype.
A T-Mobile commercial that aimed at promoting equality proved to be self-contradictory. The narrator told a group of babies of different races, “You come with open minds and the instinct that we are equal” while the phrase “WE ARE EQUAL” flashed on the screen (T-Mobile, 2018). Notably, a White baby was addressed encouragingly (“You are unstoppable”) while an Asian baby was warned that “some people may see your differences and be threatened by them” (T-Mobile, 2018). Likewise, a Black baby was told, “You will not allow where you come from to dictate where you’re going” (T-Mobile, 2018). While the White baby was given sheer reinforcement, the babies of color were forewarned of potential challenges they would have to overcome, invalidating the opening statement claiming all babies as equals. Not only was the initial declaration of equality a thoughtless assumption given the fact that social movements have gained ground in recent years precisely because inequalities exist to begin with, but the statements made to the babies contradicted one another and made assumptions about the difficulties they would face. The narrative was overall dismissive of the disadvantages awaiting some of these babies and its commands to “demand equal pay” and “be heard, not dismissed” (T-Mobile, 2018) oversimplified the solutions to these problems, ignoring the larger structural issues impeding their success.
An advertisement for Universal Parks and Resorts presented a rather suspicious portrayal of a Black family alongside former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning. Though Manning was intended to be the family’s “vacation quarterback,” his mannerisms and salience in the ad portrayed him more as their father figure. He was shown guiding a woman, two young daughters, and a teenaged son around an amusement park and interacting humorously with the children. At first glance, every sign suggests that Manning is the father of the family. Yet a second, closer observation reveals that a Black father figure was present throughout the commercial in multiple scenes. There is no denying that the Black man was deliberately hidden in every scene that he appeared: out of his three limited appearances, the man has his face hidden by another character twice. In the last scene, when Manning, the children, and the father position themselves to take a photo with two people in costume, the Black man is shown running behind the rest of the characters to pose and his entire body, except for his head, is hidden behind a brightly-colored, oblong costume, making him easily unnoticeable in the otherwise busy scene. Thus, the intended father is marginalized into practical invisibility while Manning is depicted not only more saliently than the Black man but essentially replaces him as the patriarch.
Of the Black celebrities observed, there was more variety than in 2008, when all Black male celebrities were professional athletes and the only Black female celebrity had no lines. In 2018, Black celebrities were most often musical artists, but the category also encompassed Black film and TV actors.
A gender nonbinary person was depicted for the first time among the three years in a Coca-Cola ad that promoted unity and inclusion by representing a variety of races/ethnicities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, a paraplegic, and an interracial couple. Similar montages of diverse groups of people were utilized in multiple other instances as well. For instance, a Ram Trucks commercial showed people of various races/ethnicities, genders, and ages. However well-intended, this particular ad came under public criticism for repurposing an excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “The Drum Major Instinct” speech for promotional motives, when the actual speech warned against the dangers of consumerism and even explicitly denounced spending too much money on cars.
Across all three years of analysis, Whites—White men in particular—were shown the most often as main characters and spoke more frequently than other races, making them the most pertinent presence overall and reinforcing the existing default of White male narratives. This finding came as no surprise considering Coltrane and Messineo (2000) noted that White or male characters are more likely to be prominent and exercise authority in TV commercials. In comparison, Blacks and Asians were consistently shown in secondary and background roles in higher proportions than Whites. This observation aligns with previous studies which reported that minorities are often marginalized to background roles in entertainment media and in digital and print advertisements (Jacobs Henderson & Baldasty, 2003; Mastro & Stern, 2003; Smith et al., 2016; Taylor & Stern, 1997).
Gender was also an interwoven factor in these portrayals. Men made up the majority of White, Black, and Asian characters during all years except the last, when more Asian women were observed than Asian men. Among the Asian subgroups, East Asians were shown the most frequently in 2008 and 2018, followed by South Asians and then Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. The first year, 1998, showed South Asians more than East Asians, but only by a fraction of one character. These findings somewhat reflect Paek and Shah’s (2003) discovery that South and Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders appear less frequently than East Asians in magazine ads, despite making up over 56% of the Asian American population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016).
Studies done around 1998 found that Asians were often shown as successful business people in advertisements (Paek & Shah, 2003; Taylor & Stern, 1997), which contributes to the model minority stereotype by placing repeated emphasis on positive qualities expected of Asians. Confined to such a specific occupational role, the already-underrepresented demographic will inevitably and easily fail to meet expectations when they are not successful or business-savvy in reality. The stereotypical Asian businessperson also embodies the American Dream attainment story, because the image implies that the journey to success was initially disadvantageous (confirming the fact that minorities inevitably undergo hardships to assimilate themselves in the American workforce) and praises the subject for earning a white-collar job. Yet the image of the Asian businessperson alone provides no backstory, erasing the tribulations of the journey to employment. As a whole, the gradual change in top product categories for Asians over time does suggest that this particular stereotype has lost its salience in TV advertising since 1998, broadening their roles into previously uncharted categories like automobile and food and beverage.
The analysis revealed that Asians were shown least frequently in home settings of the three racial groups. And, with the exception of the heavily stereotyped Asian men in a 2008 beer commercial, Asians were never seen in social settings outside the home. The home and social settings connote domesticity, acculturation, and sociability—three interrelated characteristics that are often missing from Asian representations due to the perpetual foreigner stereotype. Including Asians in these settings would be one way to counter the stereotype, but the Super Bowl ads only seemed to present missed opportunities. However, though Asians were rarely observed in social settings, they were eventually portrayed in social relationships, signifying their belated but at-long-last attained assimilation into the American social sphere.
Asians were not shown consistently in business settings but were depicted fairly often in business relationships, symbolizing the deeper embedment of the stereotype. The portrait of the successful Asian can exist independent of the setting, because the presence of an Asian person alone is a cue for the model minority stereotype. The stereotype is persistent enough that it follows Asian characters across various settings, always restricting them to the same role: the exemplar, the source of knowledge, the non-White white-collar employee.
Blacks were not seen in family relationships until 2018. The delayed inclusion of Blacks in family relationships is unexpected considering TV series like The Cosby Show have normalized positive depictions of Black middle-class nuclear families since the 1980s (Squires, 2009), but the recognition of Black families in 2018 is a healthy signal that advertisers are orienting their spots toward Black audiences. Similarly, Asians only appeared in a family relationship once during the entire study, despite Ho and Jackson’s (2001) finding that Asians are positively stereotyped as being family-oriented. Family depictions also have the power to humanize characters by placing them in the context of supportive, loving, and normalized relationships. Humanizing portrayals are critical to all people of color because they are already frequently reduced to stereotypes. Emphasizing one’s role as a parent, child, or sibling can help mitigate these generalizations by creating resonance in viewers who have their own roles within a family.
Blacks and Asians were rarely or never shown in romantic relationships, while Whites assumed romantic roles as regularly as any other relationship category. This observation affirms Coltrane and Messineo’s (2000) finding that Whites tend to possess more sexual license than non-Whites in TV commercials. Though one might predict based on the habitual and blatant objectification and hypersexualization of women that they would be portrayed in romantic relationships more often than men, the results showed that White women were not consistently shown as romantic subjects more often than White men throughout the three years analyzed. Coltrane and Messineo (2000) also found that women of color are not shown in romantic and family relationships to the same extent as White women. This observation was echoed in the present study, as Blacks and Asians were rarely seen in family or romantic relationships. Romantic relationships are another way of confirming one’s social desirability and competency, when not also convoluted by hypersexualization. As a result, constantly seeing White characters and only White characters taking part in romance may take a toll on minority viewers’ self-confidence and shape their notion of who deserves meaningful, romantic and even sexual relationships.
Women are already more likely than men to be portrayed as young, attractive, and suggestively dressed in the media (Coltrane & Messineo, 2000; England et al., 1981; Smith & Granados, 2009). Each of these tendencies contribute to the stereotyping of women as sexual objects that exist to satisfy the male gaze. White and Hispanic/Latina women were indeed hypersexualized and objectified in multiple instances. Blacks and Asians were not represented consistently enough or in high enough numbers to be able to compare gender portrayals within each racial group. Elderly White women were depicted less than elderly White men each year, and White women were shown more frequently as young adults than elderly people while the same was not always true for White men. This finding aligns with the double standard that deems men more valuable as they age (for qualities such as wisdom, maturity, and respectability) and women less valuable as they age (for losing their youthful charm and physical attractiveness).
Black men are often included in advertising as symbols of strength or power, and this repetitive portrayal has contributed to a stereotype that sports are a common and acceptable profession for Blacks (Bowen & Schmid, 1997). In reality, the athleticism stereotype places continued emphasis on the Black body as a commodity and as a performer, and limits Black accomplishments to their physical feats (Mastro et al., 2011). This stereotype was most apparent in the 2008 Super Bowl commercials, where every Black male celebrity was also a professional athlete. Even non-celebrity Blacks were shown as athletes, with overtly muscular bodies and always exercising against an external force. Advertising also tends to depict Blacks as musicians or entertainers, which enforces the perception that music is another acceptable occupation for Black people (Bowen & Schmid, 1997; Seiter, 1995). This tendency was similarly affirmed by this study’s findings, which saw multiple instances of Black celebrity musicians—whether they were actual celebrities or stand-ins.
Another reason that Black people may be shown in advertising is to add a “cool” factor to the featured product or service (Seiter, 1995). Gauging the trendiness of a commercial can depend on a number of factors, including the audience’s perception of the ad, the original motive of the brand, and the actor’s behavior and/or celebrity reputation. Though all of these aspects could not be considered in this study, what can be said is that multiple Black celebrity appearances seemed extraneous and therefore exploitative of their identities. For instance, in one ad musical artist Big Sean appeared in the back of a White family’s vehicle just as his top chart song was playing on the radio with no introduction and no further appearances. In another ad, Black model and actress Naomi Campbell was shown dancing in a beverage ad but had no lines and no background narrative. The race of these actors is inseparable from their celebrity status so their inclusion in the commercials cannot be attributed strictly their Blackness. Additionally, the actors’ contracts with the advertising agencies (or any number of other factors) could have been the reason their roles were brief or not well-integrated. Whatever the circumstances, the lack of intricacy in these celebrities’ roles suggests that their appearance alone sufficed to fulfill the advertisers’ first priority: to capitalize on the actors’ reputations.
Continuing the stereotypical portrayal of unassimilated Asians (Ho & Jackson, 2001; Zhang, 2010), one ad depicted South Asians as non-Americans while another ad showed multiple East and South Asian men speaking with accents. Asian men are also stereotyped as being effeminate, asexual, and isolated, and were portrayed often as martial artists or cunning villains in earlier media portrayals (Lee & Joo, 2005; Zhang, 2010). While the martial artist and villain tropes were, by this period in time, nonexistent, Asian men were shown as effeminate and asexual in multiple instances, particularly in 1998 and 2008. Unlike many White and Black men, Asian men were never the performers of humor, which fits into the stereotype that Asians are humorless (Ho & Jackson, 2001).
As for Asian women, the stereotypes portray them consistently as silent, exotic, and hypersexual, yet also evil and seductive (Lee & Joo, 2005; Park et al., 2006; Zhang, 2010). Asian women in this study were not hypersexualized or portrayed as malicious antagonists, nor were they exoticized, but they were not once granted a speaking role or a lead role. A lack of speaking roles may define all the featured Asian women as silent characters, but “silent” implies that there was an opportunity to speak and the character willfully chose not to. In the case of each Asian woman depicted, there was no opportunity to speak or build any kind of narrative to begin with because they did not have sufficient screen time. These women were consciously denied a voice by the ad creators, effectively making them silenced characters. As a collective, the repeated marginalization of Asian women in Super Bowl commercials translates into their lack of value and lack of complexity in the physical world. The consistency of this deemphasizing portrayal across all three years of the study confirms that it has become a normalized representation of Asian women, even in the current year of analysis, which showed quantitative and qualitative improvements for other demographics.
Asian men’s portrayals were more diversified than those of their female counterparts. Asian men were framed by success stories in two commercials, calling forth the model minority stereotype that highlights the superior work ethic and educational and business achievements of Asians (Paek & Shah, 2003). Of the two, one of the advertisements was an animated commercial and the main character mildly reflected the company founder, Vin Gupta, who is an Indian immigrant and now a successful businessman in the United States. The main character in the ad was a presumed South Asian immigrant who, rather than acting out the story of the company’s founding, was shown using the featured online business tool in order to find sales leads, ultimately leading to a dramatic turnaround in his work performance. At face value, the commercial was a positive portrayal of an Asian immigrant’s business-related achievement, making it applicable to the model minority stereotype. However, this connection is complicated by two details. First, as mentioned, the writer of the commercial was a South Asian immigrant himself who similarly worked toward his own career advancement, and as such the success story could have been fueled by a desire to illustrate his own life rather than to employ an Asian character strictly to evoke a sense of business accomplishment. Secondly, the commercial was accompanied by a second ad for the same brand that was also written by Gupta. This ad portrayed Asians in a starkly different manner: the main characters were animated pandas rather than humans and their East Asian heritage was signified by their accents and names, as well as the panda’s symbolism as a cultural artifact of China. This depiction was in no way evocative of the model minority stereotype, but it was indeed stereotypical in that it completely minimized East Asians to cultural signifiers and showed them speaking with thick accents that suggested their foreignness and lack of acculturation.
Beyond demonstrating the positive and negative potentials of Asian stereotyping, these contrasting portrayals show how the division between Asian subgroups can lead Asians to internalize positive stereotypes exclusively for in-group members and only project negative stereotypes onto out-group members. Bearing in mind the idea of panethnicity, projecting subgroup-specific stereotypes can result in the misrepresentation of an entire ethnic group. Panethnicity also reminds us that the Asian continent is vast and its people are far from uniform despite their common label. The broad label itself reveals how ethnocentric the U.S.-American concept of Asia is, and that not all native Asians identify with the ethnic group as a whole.
The concept of racial triangulation had potential to be relevant to television commercials in the initial stages of the present study. A number of qualities unique to advertisements inspired this rumination. First, TV commercials tend to be broadcast in a rapid-fire procession and in concurrence with other commercials, leaving ample opportunity for messages to be subconsciously absorbed with minimal critical reflection. Advertising has generally been considered irritating, interfering, and/or insignificant by the public, and yet it is ubiquitous in the media and non-digital world. These factors naturally create the ideal circumstances for quick and undetectable message insemination. TV ads are also obligated to be as straightforward as possible due to a finite amount of paid air time, and since stereotypes naturally simplify our cognitive processing (Mastro, 2009b), they are sometimes used to ensure audience understanding of the commercial’s message. Dalisay and Tan’s (2009) experiment also created the possibility that contrasting racial portrayals on television could influence audiences by demonstrating how viewer perceptions of Asians and Blacks changed after exposure to stereotypes. Given that the present work relied solely on content analysis, audience reactions could not similarly be examined for the given Super Bowl commercials.
Compared to the overwhelming majority of Whites there were not many Black characters in the analyzed content, and even fewer Asian characters. Consequently, it was difficult to make comparisons from such skewed quantities. Blacks and Asians were also rarely shown in the same commercial, and when they were, they were shown in completely separate scenes that made up a montage of assorted social groups. Blacks and Asians were never shown directly speaking to one another, which may be an indicator of just how deeply their media portrayals contrast. The two races are allocated to such specific tropes that their contexts and roles rarely intersect.
Overall, Blacks were restricted to minimizing roles as athletes and musicians, tokenized, and degraded through insensitive treatment. Yet there were no portrayals that directly undervalorized them in relation to Asians, who endured the same underrepresentation and marginalization. Thus, the first facet of the racial triangulation theory, which asserts that Asians are valorized over Blacks, was not confirmed through the portrayals analyzed in Super Bowl commercials from the given three years.
The second facet of the theory, which states that Asians are continually regarded as foreign and unassimilable as a means of preventing their politicization, was indeed observed through the multiple portrayals of Asians speaking with accents. The inclusion of accents reinforces the preconception that Asians are “unfit for and uninterested in the American way of life” (Kim, 1999, p. 112), ultimately emphasizing their otherness in relation to those who are assimilated (read: speak unaccented English). This is because conformity is used as a way of evaluating a person’s value and social acceptability in the U.S. The prioritization of conformity is explained in part by the self-categorization theory, which purports that a person will regard an out-group member more favorably the more similarities they share with the perceiver’s in-group (Mastro & Kopacz, 2006). Thus, a character’s style of speech denotes 1) their assimilation in American society and 2) their similarity and favorability to the viewer.
The inclusion of an accent by itself does not necessarily amount to a damaging or unrealistic portrayal. In addition to racial stereotypes, they can also evoke an untold story of migration and multilingual accomplishment. However, accents are inherently degrading when used as an opportunity for humor, and even greater implications arise when accents are combined with other attributes. One-dimensional characters with few unique qualities beyond their style of speech are susceptible to being characterized entirely by their accent, amplifying their foreignness. For underrepresented characters of color, the effects of their representations can linger long after the initial viewing. Out-group members can internalize the idea that all members of a particular minority group are foreign or do not speak English fluently, and as a result, in-group members have to endure the performance of that idea through taunts and misassumptions about their heritage.6
Among the Super Bowl commercials viewed, accents were used both to pay tribute to the heritage of characters and to mock them. The two 2008 Salesgenie.com commercials written by Vin Gupta demonstrate each of these frames. In the first ad, two characters who owned a failing business spoke with exaggerated East Asian accents, while a third character, who introduced the problem-solving product, spoke unaccented English. All three characters were depicted as animated pandas, which would have stripped them of any possible racial characterizations if their accents had not distinguished the first two pandas as East Asians. Contrastingly, the second Salesgenie.com advertisement depicted a South Asian man’s business success story. The character’s accent emphasized the exceptionality of his feat by implying that he, as an immigrant, had become successful after having already surpassed the hardships of living away from his home country and learning a new language.
Characters with African accents were likewise shown in these contrasting manners. The 2008 LatinWorks commercial showed a Black man offering an awkward compliment to a woman at an unsuccessful attempt at flirting. His accent and the substance of his compliment implies that he is foreign and not socially acute, and that these qualities contribute to his lack of romantic, possibly sexual success. On the other hand, a 2018 Lexus commercial featured three characters from the film “Black Panther” speaking in accents of a fictional African country. Since the characters’ African heritage was integral to their identities, their accents were a way to give due recognition to their non-U.S. nationality.
Black characters were greater in quantity overall than Asian characters, so their foreigner depictions were diffused among a variety of roles. The more compelling issues marking Black representation had to do with stereotypical occupations and high celebrity infusion. Accents were observed in a greater proportion of Asians than Whites or Blacks, and though they were not always used to demean the characters, even uplifting and neutral depictions of Asian immigrants and foreigners can bolster the stereotypical belief that most Asians are recently arrived to the States, are unable to integrate themselves into the country’s society, and/or are not American. Contradictorily, non-derogatory depictions of Asians with accents are also counter-stereotypical because they differ from yellowface depictions that deprive Asians of autorepresentation and from the historical mockery of Asian accents and languages (see Ono & Pham, 2009). These humanized, realistic depictions can undermine previously humorous perceptions of Asian accents, add value to immigrants’ struggles, and celebrate their non-U.S. heritage.
Addressing the quantifiable changes first, the proportion of racial/ethnic minorities within the greater sum of characters increased with each successive decade. Blacks saw the greatest increase in representation, from 7.6% of all characters in 1998 Super Bowl commercials to 20.2% in 2018 commercials. In 2016, Blacks made up 13.3% of the population in 2016 (“U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts selected,” 2016),7 making them the most overrepresented minority by far. Asians increased in percentage only marginally in comparison, but by 2018 they were also overrepresented; in that year Asians made up 6.2% of characters while the U.S. Census Bureau reported that they made up 5.9% of the population in 2016.8 Meanwhile, Whites comprised the majority of character portrayals throughout all three years, but in the last year of analysis they were surprisingly underrepresented. In 2018, 60.1% of characters were White while 76.9% of the U.S. population was White in 2016 (“U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts selected,” 2016). This reversal in proportions may be a result of the media’s overcompensation for decades of severe minority underrepresentation in the past. It may have also resulted from public demands for more people of color on screens, and advertising agencies’ compliance with these demands in an effort to appease their audience. In any case, it is a refreshing change to see more racial minorities on screen during one of the nation’s largest media events, albeit relegated to secondary roles.
Another notable change was that the average number of characters per commercial increased from 3.4 in 1998, to 5.6 in 2008, and finally to 8.1 in 2018. The steady increase in the average was in large part due to the surge in montage-style commercials including multiple scenes with varying settings and characters. On one hand, montages can demonstrate the versatility and universality of a product by showing how it benefits a vast variety of consumers. The style then naturally allows space for a diversity of races and/or ethnicities. Yet on the other hand, they can equally lose viewers’ attention among the multiple brief scenes, prevent viewers from developing emotional resonance with any one character, and deny the characters themselves a detailed narrative. Montage ads operate under the same pre-established time constraints as other ads yet must fit a greater number of disparate scenes within the timeframe. For this reason, characters in montage-style ads were rarely found to have speaking roles and were categorized as secondary characters who shared equal prominence with all other characters. While montages may have increased the quantity of minorities observed in the later years of the analysis, still comparatively few numbers of minority main and/or speaking characters were observed in those years.
Interestingly, the proportion of Black celebrity portrayals increased to the point of exceeding that of Whites. In the first year of analysis, there were no Black celebrity appearances, but in 2008 and 2018, celebrities made up a higher percentage of the total amount of Black characters than White celebrities did for their own racial group. Having a celebrity reputation naturally increases the desirability of an actor, but the contrasting proportions here show that for Blacks, the reputation may be a greater influence in their inclusion. It is already known that Black actors are used to make products trendy (Seiter, 1995), but the increased use of Black celebrities in Super Bowl ads reflects much more than this aspiration. It implies that to be included at all, Black people must first be proven important. This importance is usually determined by their artistic contribution, general favorability among public audiences, or another profitable characteristic. This treatment is reminiscent of the way the model minority myth necessitates that Asians prove their worth through academic and business achievements. It seems, then, that a silver lining exists between Blacks and Asians and that their representations are perhaps not as juxtaposed as the racial triangulation theory implies. Both groups are continually pressured to prove their worth via tangible successes in order to be accepted in American society and—as suggested by the percentages—featured in America’s most prized commercials.
Moving to longitudinal changes in speaking roles, more Black voices were heard with each successive year of analysis. The same could not be said for Asians, who peaked at five speaking roles in 2008 and went back down to just one speaking role in 2018. More and more Whites had lines with each passing year, though men always had double or triple the number of speaking roles as women. In the most recent year of analysis, a White woman, a Black man, and a Black woman were featured as product spokespeople, which contrasted from the overwhelming majority of White male spokespeople from years previous. Speaking roles give prominence to the speaker by dedicating time to their words. Whereas multiple faces can be shown simultaneously in a scene and still be absorbed by a viewer, voices must be heard one at a time in order to be received most efficiently by the listener. In this way, spoken lines concentrate attention specifically on the speaker. In addition to allowing a character the ability to communicate directly with other characters and/or the audience, speaking roles also indirectly reveal identifying qualities of the speaker, such as accents, speech impediments, and emotional states. Characters who are deprived of speaking roles are in this sense also deprived of complexity, agency, and an opportunity to connect with the audience.
Finally, in terms of more qualitative changes, derogatory and/or minimizing stereotypes of White women, Blacks, and Asians spiked in 2008. White women were initially limited to playing the heterosexual romantic and/or sexual interests of White men in 1998. They were additionally depicted as unknowledgeable and helpless: in multiple cases White women were informed by White men about products that would solve their problems (i.e. an online platform to purchase automobiles, a credit card). In 2008, White women were still commonly heterosexual romantic/sexual interests. In comparison, ads from 2018 showed strides of progress for White women. For instance, professional alpine skier and Team USA gold medalist Lauren Woolstencroft’s story was highlighted in an automobile ad that promoted the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games. This certainly strayed from the infamous ads that restricted women to the domestic sphere during advertising’s earliest stages (Smith & Granados, 2009), and was directly counter-stereotypical to preexisting archetypes of helpless women. The final year also had the first instance of a White gender non-binary person, expressing not only the company’s acceptance of nontraditional gender identities, but also a counter-stereotype to all gendered stereotypes that dichotomize human portrayals to men and women (though granted, it may just be the case that there has not been a long enough history of non-binary representation in the media for stereotypes to have formed yet).
Black media representation has similarly been in the process of improving—at least in quantity—in recent years (Mastro, 2009). As for quality, the Super Bowl commercials show that advertisers have only recently begun to detach Black characters from their preexisting stereotypes. Portrayals of Black male athletes were predominant in 2008, while Black celebrity musicians were most frequent in 2018. Both of these are occupational stereotypes for Blacks that have been observed in studies of the past (Bowen & Schmid, 1997; Seiter, 1995), and their swapped popularity suggests that different stereotypes may grow and decline in trendiness from decade to decade. Even outside of these frequent celebrity appearances, 2018 featured Blacks in a much wider variety of roles, behaviors, occupations, and product categories. They were also shown in interracial and queer relationships.
One automobile commercial featured three Black actors from “Black Panther,” a Marvel Comics film with a predominantly Black cast that takes place in a fictional African nation. The actors were shown using advanced technology and defeating villains. This superhero depiction can be viewed as a counter-stereotype to the overrepresentation of Blacks as lawbreakers and the underrepresentation of Blacks as victims of violent crime on news media (Dixon et al., 2003; Dixon & Linz, 2000). Though the word “stereotype” is included in their name, counter-stereotypes do not generalize an entire racial group as their predecessors do. Rather, they take power away from the preexisting, exhausted portrayals by diluting their influence. By this assertion the Black superheroes in the Lexus ad (and in “Black Panther”) are dually powerful: they simultaneously take down a group of antagonists with hand-to-hand combat skills and subvert a longstanding Black stereotype.
Asians similarly endured the most damaging stereotypes in the first two years of this study with a greater variety of roles developing in the most recent year. The few Asians in 1998 Super Bowl ads were featured only momentarily (read: tokenized) and two of the three portrayals depicted South Asians as foreigners of the U.S. A decade later, the stereotypes were even more injurious: men were deprived of their sexuality in more than one commercial, and East Asians were branded by occupations (i.e. sushi chefs) and cultural symbols (i.e. panda bears) pertaining to their heritage. In 2018, Asians enjoyed less stereotypical and more diversified portrayals. For example, they were shown in more social relationships without any stereotyping—but also without any lines. The model minority stereotype continued to haunt their portrayals as well. The one instance of the model minority stereotype in 2018 portrayed a growth story featuring an East Asian male protagonist, in a technology ad nonetheless. The protagonist was supposed to depict the actual company’s founder as he journeyed through stages of inspiration and invention while handcrafting his very first product, a pair of headphones. The narrative, though stereotypical and obviously glamourized, was in fact a true story of a real Asian man. Additionally, the main character was played by Ricegum, a hip-hop/rap artist and internet celebrity. Ricegum’s reputation is not only notable because few Asian celebrities were observed across the study (others included singer Kina Grannis and actor Keanu Reeves, who are both multiracial Asians), but also because his career is untraditional for an Asian.9
While the Asian representations in these two commercials fit the model minority stereotype, they each show that stereotypical portrayals cannot easily be dichotomized into positive and negative, into constructive and harmful. In both cases, a number of additional factors could have contributed to the viewer’s overall impression of the ad, one of them being that both commercials were written by Asians. Is it possible, then, for minorities to stereotype themselves? And are these stereotypical illustrations harmful if they are written into existence by in-group members? In a sense, yes, because these depictions still prevent the diversification of their race/ethnicity’s public impression and mass media presence at a broader level. Additionally, the intent of the advertiser—let alone the race/ethnicity of the writer—is not always known by the audience, so it could still be interpreted as an offensive or restricting stereotype by in-group viewers.
Racial Triangulation Theory
Contrary to the dynamic proffered by Kim (1999), in which Blacks are valorized less than Asians in order to reinforce both groups’ subordination to Whites, Blacks did not assume less valuable roles than Asians. Indeed, their roles showed very little overlap, and there were no cases where Blacks were deliberately framed in an unbecoming light. Albeit, in the idealistic world of advertising, rarely are there outright demeaning roles—only demeaning characterizations. And although Asians were not valorized higher than Blacks, the fact that they were marginalized to a greater extent points to another principle of the racial triangulation theory: civic ostracism. This process denies Asian Americans naturalization legally10 and, in Super Bowl commercials, symbolically, by only allowing them peripheral media representations and depriving them of normalcy through simplistic, confined roles as businesspeople and forcefully silenced background characters.
To reiterate a critical detail of Kim’s theory, the relative valorization of Asians and Blacks strategically incites inter-minority group conflict in order to maintain the superiority of the White majority. Notably, in the current study, both Asians and Blacks had to justify their presence on-screen through work-related achievements and contributions in music and athletics. Recall that the earliest African Americans and Asian Americans were exploited for their labor immediately following their involuntary and voluntary arrivals, respectively, and their conditional acceptance in the nation’s most valuable TV commercials becomes a continuation of the same majority-maintained mindset that minorities must demonstrate their profitability in order to take up space—whether in a 30-second, $5 million commercial, or within U.S. society at large. Filtered through mass media, this particular mindset of conditional belonging can alienate Asian- and Black-American viewers and encourage them to associate their market worth with their general self-worth.
The conditional acceptance of minorities in the media is akin to the new neoliberal citizenship model, which bases citizenship in an individual’s successful participation in national markets rather than on birthright (Root, 2007). In other words, one must prove their profitable contribution to the domestic economy in order to achieve belonging in a country, instead of relying on their personal lineage in the country alone. Kim (1999) frames civic ostracism principally as a tool to prevent political subversion from Asian Americans, but it applies equally to the idea of market citizenship in that Asians in America are often withheld “belonging” in the media unless they demonstrate work-related competency.
The findings from the most recent year of analysis prompt an adapted understanding of the Black-Asian American dynamic beyond the political sphere and into the realm of popular culture and mass media, where positive representations are becoming more common and “post-racial” narratives abound. The current Super Bowl commercial landscape contains minimizing idealisms, like T-Mobile’s “Little Ones,” and misguided portrayals of people of color, like Universal Parks and Resorts’ “Vacation Quarterback” and Ram Trucks’ “Built to Serve,” that belie the progress yet to be made in diverse advertising. Yet if Blacks and Asians are not racialized hierarchically in relation to each other in fictional media, what then differentiates their continued inferiority to Whites in 2018 and beyond? Rather than a binary scale, the newest dimension in the racial field seems to draw distinctions in people’s marketable value. Blacks and Asians are obligated to explain their presence in media through some worthy contribution, but the terms of this contribution differ for each; Blacks are expected to demonstrate athletic—or at least corporeal—or musical skills, while Asians are expected to show productivity-related accomplishment. From observing the great variation in Whites’ portrayals, they are not restricted to such specific requirements.
Media Effects Theories
In the realms of mass communication studies and psychology, this study presents additional potential consequences for the three racial groups along theoretical lines. Following the cultivation theory and the social cognitive theory, the overarching trends observed in this study can have ramifications in the physical world. According to these two theories, consuming repetitive media images over a long period of time can change a viewer’s perception of the world (Bandura, 2001; Morgan, 2009). Shifting these theories to apply to what is consistently not shown on TV is equally revealing of the potentially harmful and beneficial effects of long-term viewing. For example, this study found that advertisers have a habit of relegating minorities to secondary and background roles, and tend to deprive minorities and women of the opportunity to speak. In the same way that heavy television viewers have been found to hold stereotypical views of American minorities (Lee et al., 2009), TV audiences may also assume that racial/ethnic minorities are just as invisible or peripheral in the physical world as they are in commercials, exacerbating their marginalization.
The priming theory involves the short-term effects of media consumption. Immediately following exposure to TV-mediated, stereotyped racial portrayals, viewers evaluated certain racial groups differently (Dalisay & Tan, 2009). Studies show that overtly positive or negative racial portrayals can influence people’s opinions on race-coded topics like welfare, crime, and affirmative action directly after exposure (Gilliam, 1999; Mastro, 2009b; Valentino, 1999). Though Super Bowl viewers are likely not tested for their thoughts on race-coded topics after a commercial break, the Super Bowl is a nationwide media event that calls people together in physical spaces. According to the priming theory, then, seeing stereotypical or counter-stereotypical racial/ethnic depictions on television can change those live audiences’ thoughts on the other viewers in the room, or fellow viewer-participants on social media.
When it comes to Super Bowl commercials, even more lasting than priming effects and more probable than long-term exposure effects are alterations in one’s self-perception. The social identity and self-categorization theories declare that (1) an individual’s social identity is defined by their membership in different social groups, and (2) their group identity can then act as a gauge to determine how likable out-groups are; the more similar the out-group member is to oneself, the more favorably they are perceived (Mastro & Kopacz, 2006; Tajfel, 1974). Since social identity is strongly tied to self-esteem and self-concept, maintaining a healthy perception of one’s own group equates to a healthy self-perception as well. For racial/ethnic minority viewers who rarely see their fellow in-group members on television, these infrequent representations carry heavy potential for positive and negative consequences. Indeed, media stereotypes of racial minorities have been found to harm in-group members’ self-esteem and change out-group members’ reactions to the depicted minorities in the real world (Mastro & Kopacz, 2006; Rivadeneyra et al., 2007). Stereotypical portrayals can even change people’s opinions on race-related policies (Mendelberg, 1997; Mastro & Kopacz, 2006; Pan & Kosicki, 1996; Richardson, 2005; Tan et al., 2000), which in turn could lead to structural changes that affect the lives of U.S. minorities.
The negative effects are daunting, but gradual reversal is possible through counter-stereotypes (see Bodenhausen et al., 1995; Power et al., 1996). Media effects theories need not always implicate negative consequences for viewers. Just as they have demonstrated the detrimental outcomes of media images, these theories equally suggest that commercials have latent ability to empower viewers who have previously felt neglected. The retroactively determined results of this study can act as an exemplar for future advertising projects—on whichever platform they take form, and for occasions less extraordinary than the Super Bowl—by demonstrating the vastly beneficial and detrimental implications their actors can have on U.S. audiences.
Outside of the theoretical sphere, the findings also offer suggestions for prospective Super Bowl advertisers. Rather than ruminating on the heinous portrayals of the past, future advertisers should set higher standards for their own commercials. This includes being more intentional about including people with less visibility in the media and illustrating them in a wider range of roles. It is dire to prioritize minority consumers as soon as possible, both for their reasonable profitability and to make them feel like integrated, valued members of the country. All anti-capitalist cynicism aside, advertising has cultural significance in our media landscape. It has a ubiquitous presence in our physical and virtual worlds and carries significance as a social tableau of American ideals. Whether intentional or not, the symbolic meanings behind ad imagery will always be present, and given that we have long since surpassed the hypodermic needle model of communication, advertisers have no reason to expect their viewers to be uncritical of these underlying meanings.
Just like audiences, companies and advertising agencies can also be negatively impacted by skewed representations. Though they are the originators of these representations and do not experience the affective pain that audiences do, corporate entities can suffer identity-related losses just as well. Every company, after all, has their own meticulously designed self-concept—better known as a brand. Twitchell (2009) describes a brand as “a story attached to a manufactured object” (p. 228). The purpose of a story is to generate an emotional response of some sort in the listener, or in this case the consumer. It can be assumed, then, that the ultimate goal of brands is to achieve emotional resonance or at least some semblance of a friendship with their audience. Human portrayals that alienate, mock, restrict, or do not feature certain social groups at all are guaranteed to snuff out these desired connections. Fortunately for companies, preventative measures and solutions lie all around them in the form of minority talent (as writers, creatives, actors, producers, etc.) and practices like listening to their employees of color and audiences on social media, and by extension mastering tone-sensitivity and more humanized representations.
The truth of the matter is, advertising is still in the process of maturing from its corrupt, male-dominated, nepotistic beginnings. Organizations like The 3% Movement, the 4A’s Multicultural Advertising Internship Program (MAIP), ADCOLOR, and MiMConnect are living proof of the need for advertising agencies to diversify their hires. Yet the existence of these initiatives shows that promising change is being willed from within the advertising industry.
Still, there is always more work to be done in diversifying media representations, and technical conditions like time limitations, tight budgets, and audience demographics are not the true impediments to progress. Targeted advertising may seem like an expedited way to capture consumers, considering in-group representation is most likely to create resonance. But if targeted advertising tends to prioritize the largest demarcated group of consumers, it will consequently always target Whites. We know that racial and ethnic differences will not prevent resonance in viewers because minorities in the U.S. have felt resonance and even built conceptions of reality through advertising, films, TV shows, and news that cater to Whites for decades. By extension, White audiences should similarly be able to learn and experience emotions from narratives centering around people of color.
Finally, returning the focus to the very event that called these commercials into existence, the Super Bowl has unparalleled influence in the corporate sphere and viewers’ social sphere because it boasts a nationwide audience, presents an enticingly huge opportunity for profit, and garners online attention well beyond its air date. Additionally, commercials aired during the championship game are paid closer attention than those broadcast during primetime television hours (Buck, 1992; Gunter & Furnham, 1997; Elliott, 1999; Jensen, 1998a; Jensen, 1998b). While this last fact is beneficial for companies who want their names and products to be remembered, it also means that their media messages are more hard-hitting in the moment and more likely to be remembered after the initial viewing. Commercials that choose to utilize damaging stereotypes to a national audience in an attempt at humor, or only feature White male main characters while allocating all other demographics to the periphery, are doing a disservice to its own brand and to a diverse audience that deserves recognition.
There were some limitations encountered during the data collection and analysis processes. The first was that there was only one coder. Having conversations about my observations with fellow researchers would have helped solidify my interpretations and create even more of them, considering I had limited time for the analysis. More importantly, I inherently carry my own biases and preconceptions of race and ethnicity. When it came to coding races, I could only rely on my own visual perception of peoples’ faces and bodies, especially because racial/ethnic identities were not always represented through speech, dress, or cultural artifacts. Even corporeally, races and ethnicities were sometimes ambiguous and the coder could make no determined categorizations.
That being said, I myself have consumed and internalized White narratives since childhood, and only recently learned to interpret them as racialized perspectives. Before then, I absorbed these narratives unquestioningly. Eventually that lack of awareness turned into a learned helplessness, through which I accepted the dearth of faces like mine on my TV screen as a permanent condition of being a minority. White people dominated my media, my neighborhoods, and my social groups for the majority of my life, and as a result, a miniscule part of myself still perceives minorities as “others”—even those of my own race. Yet as a U.S.-American minority, I have experienced the exclusion, stereotyping, and marginalization produced by Whitewashed media. Because I have experienced firsthand the palpable effects of Asian stereotypes, I felt well-equipped to recognize potential harm and microaggressions in the racial/ethnic portrayals of this study. This is not to overwrite the existence of my own inherent racial biases toward out-groups; after all, the social identity theory and self-categorization theory show that each person is hardwired to measure out-groups relative to their own. However, my in-group identity, combined with my academic concentration in communication studies, is precisely what allowed me to notice trends, changes, and improvements in minority representations and envision their implications for real audiences. Additionally, I can attest to the viewer effects suggested here in part because my own social reality has been shaped by a lifetime of media consumption. And while they could not be affirmed in real participants, the potential viewer effects observed in this study diversifies the broader field of media effects research, which has largely measured reactions in White American audiences (Martinez & Ramasubramanian, 2015).
A second limitation was that the quality of the videos on the AdAge.com and iSpot.tv databases sometimes interfered with my ability to discern age, race, and emotional states, especially for secondary and background characters. This was largely a problem for older commercials that had low quality uploads. This limitation only provides more reason to show people of color in lead roles and demonstrates how easily characters who are delegated to the background can be erased.
A third limitation is that the primary focus is on just three racial groups: Whites, Blacks, and Asians. Though the selection of these races was inspired by a desire to examine racial triangulation’s applicability to Super Bowl commercials, this focus entailed the exclusion of other minority groups—such as Latinxs, Middle Easterners, and Native Americans—from close content analysis. The argument could be made that Whites, Blacks, and Asians were the three most commonly observed races across all three years, and thus offered the most varied portrayals. However, additional factors should be considered. First, members of ethnic groups like Latinxs are not easily discerned from physical traits alone because ethnic identity can intersect with varying races. Oftentimes physical traits offer the only trace of a character’s race/ethnicity in media as brief as a television spot. As a result of the absence of these physical ethnic identifiers, the number of Latinx characters could have exceeded the quantity noted by the lone coder.
Second, the racial/ethnic minorities outside of this study’s focus have similarly been underrepresented in American media but unlike Asians and Blacks, their proportions have not increased dramatically in recent Super Bowl commercials. In the three years analyzed, Middle Easterners and Native Americans were only observed in 2018 commercials, and even then, Native Americans were underrepresented at 0.6% of all characters despite making up 1.3% of the U.S. population in 2016 (“U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts selected,” 2016). Hispanics and/or Latinxs remained greatly underrepresented across all three years as well. To say that their change is yet to come would be ignorant of the fact that these minority groups—particularly Native Americans and Latinxs—have roots in America that precede the foundation of the country itself. They have been present in our society for centuries yet have remained invisible in our media and popular culture. Social attitudes shaped by the erasure of Native American history, Islamophobia in the post-9/11 period, and the continual controversy over Latinx immigration have undoubtedly influenced these groups’ media portrayals and make agencies hesitant to include them in advertisements. This only reiterates the point suggested by Kim that racialization is an open-ended and variable process that differs for each racial group (1999, p. 105). Future studies that elaborate on the historical, societal, and cultural treatment of Latinxs, Middle Easterners, and/or Native Americans would then enhance the present study by demonstrating the nuanced nature of racial representations.
Lastly, Blacks and Asians were not the only minorities to endure stereotypical or demeaning portrayals in the analyzed ads: Latinas were hypersexualized, Latinx cultural artifacts (i.e. low riders) were used in lieu of Latinx people themselves, and Latinxs were marginalized to background roles while more Anglo-appearing actors took frontstage. Middle Easterners and Native Americans, when finally observed in 2018, were almost always featured as secondary characters in montage-style ads with no lines. For this reason, further studies that give ample time and space to the discussion of minority portrayals in Super Bowl commercials beyond Blacks and Asians would prove fruitful in showing changes over time and inspecting new and preexisting stereotypes for viewer effects implications, just as the present study does. Though, given the rarity of some racial/ethnic groups in these ads, it is unclear if enough content currently exists to conduct a longitudinal study.
This study attempted to see if the racial triangulation theory would be evident in racial representations in Super Bowl commercials, and found that the relative valorization of Whites over Blacks and Asians was very much present through tokenization, marginalization, and stereotyping. The valorization of Asians over Blacks, however, was not noticeable due to the lack of blatantly negative portrayals of Blacks, and the greater frequency of their appearances compared to Asians. It may prove more fruitful to examine the possibility of racial triangulation elsewhere in our media, like in TV or streaming service shows and films. These creative works have longer time limits than TV commercials—naturally allowing for more character development—and their primary agenda is not to sell a commodity or service. These media also almost always feature extensive narratives for their characters and, unlike advertisements, they are watched intently and intentionally by viewers. Even more promising are news media, which are known to express racial biases and affect viewers’ stances on policy issues (Dixon, 2008; Dixon & Williams, 2015; Greco Larson, 2006; Josey et al., 2008; Pan & Kosicki, 1996; Ramasubramanian & Martinez, 2017). The frames, rhetoric, and imagery of racial/ethnic minorities used in news media could very well be indicators of relative valorization and civic ostracism, making it the precise media environment for racial triangulation. Specifying the sample of future studies to examine as many racial/ethnic portrayals as possible and to focus less on longitudinal changes may also result in more comparable numbers of Black, Asian, and other minority representations than those in this study. Ultimately, racial positioning can manifest itself in many media habitats beyond Super Bowl commercials, so the fact that the concept did apply perfectly to this study should not discourage prospective studies that explore the presence of racial triangulation in other digital media, or the racial positioning of minorities other than Blacks and Asians.
The relative valorization of non-Whites is observable through America's beloved, crème de la crème of commercials.
Commercials today are less stereotypical than those of decades past, but advertisers still need to pay closer attention to who they prioritize, who they allow a voice, and who they categorize habitually into the same types of product categories and roles.