Researchers at the helm of a University of Toronto study have found that racial discrimination in advertising is not only prevalent in Canada, but also reflects a variety of racial stereotypes. A series of food ads on primetime TV significantly underrepresented black and Asian actors in favour of white actors, and at the same time pigeon-holed both minority and majority actors into portraying inaccurate racial caricatures.

Sociology professor Shyon Baumann and recent PhD graduate Loretta Ho looked at food-related commercials aired on CTV, Global and CBC between 2008 and 2009 to study racial representation in advertising. They found the ads squeezed actors of different races into precise, stereotypical roles, like the “natural”, holistic white persona, or the working class, “blue-collar” black caricature.

The ads in the study were aired in Toronto, where a 2011 National Household Survey* found non-whites make up almost 50 per cent of the population. However, Baumann and Ho found that the white actors starred in the largest array of positive roles in the commercials studied.

The study,Cultural Schemas for Racial Identity in Canadian Television Advertising,” has recently been published in the Canadian Review of Sociology.

Baumann and Ho sat down with a representative of the Global Migration Research Institute at the University of Toronto to talk about their study.


Could you talk about how your research filled a void in the study of racial representation in the media?

Ho: We decided to look more deeply at food advertising because that’s where a lot of the racial diversity was seen. Food is something that absolutely matters to everyone; we all eat.

The first part of the paper looks at how races are represented in the different types of food categories. But that’s just part of the picture. We wanted to go one step further and try to identify some of the different types of cultural schemas used in ads.

What is a schema?

Baumann: Whereas stereotypes focus on an association between a group and a trait, schemas can encompass more than one trait — so, a whole set of ideas that are connected to a group. Schemas also provide scripts for how to behave in social settings according to those sets of associations. They can guide behaviour.

Ho: We were able to find four major schemas that were used for whites and one schema each for Asians and blacks.

You mentioned four schemas for the whites which you call white natural, white nostalgia, white highbrow and white nuclear family. And then for the blacks there’s the black blue-collar, and for the Asians, the Asian technocrat. What’s the white nostalgia schema about?

Ho: One type of nostalgia that’s used shows that whites are associated with products that are rooted in tradition.

So, in the Oka cheese commercial for instance, it’s not just cheese that you buy at the supermarket, it’s a tradition that has been passed on for generations and generations. It harkens back to a time when the craftsmanship of food was valued.

Moving on to the natural schema: that one is pretty prevalent in some of the advertising that we’ve seen, particularly in the relation to whole foods. The example that we brought up was from President’s Choice. In these ads, Galen Weston, the president of a major Canadian grocery chain was tasting the food right from the field. All of the farmers are white, not representative at all of the diversity we have in the farming sector in Canada. It reinforces this idea, however inaccurate, that whites have a natural connection to wholesome and good food.

With the third highbrow schema, you see whites associated with highbrowness in some way. The ad that we tried to focus on is the Europe’s Best frozen fruit ad. The cues that you see inside the ad kind of suggest that the white family consuming it are of a higher social status background. Their kitchen is very nicely done; it’s all stainless steel, there’s classical music playing in the background, the parents are dressed very well. It seems like each parent has a high-paying, white-collar job.

Baumann: The white nuclear family schema refers to the depiction of family settings. We saw this almost exclusively with white families, rather than families of other races.

For the black blue-collar schema (so, now we’re looking at ads that featured black characters as prominent characters in commercials), we saw a recurring theme of the depiction of these characters not as professional characters, but more as blue-collar characters. On the other hand, these ads seem to be inclusive, but at the same time, blacks are only given some sort of peripheral status.

The Asian technocrat schema depicts Asians as unemotional robots, and plays also on the “overachiever” stereotype. There weren’t a lot of ads like this, but what’s significant is that there are relatively few Asian characters and they are all depicted in this limited way; so that is a powerful message.

Revealing these schemas also suggests that a diversification of portrayals is only available to white characters in our sample. There are more opportunities for flexibility and more realism, but for whites only.

In comparison to what has been done in the US or in Canada before your research, did you find anything that stood out or were surprised by or very original to your work?

Baumann: The rates of representation that we found were a little bit surprising to us because the market in Canada has large populations of East and South East Asians, and South Asians, and people of Middle Eastern ancestry and those categories are really quite small. So, some groups were really strongly underrepresented.

I also don’t think we came across any work that focused as much as we did on the white schemas. Most of the prior work focused on the other racialized groups.

you mentioned towards the end of the paper research questions you thought would be more fruitful for others to work on. How would you recommend moving forward with these findings?

Baumann: We need to see if the schemas and rates of representation change over time, if they fade or if they remain strong.

We looked in depth at food and dining as a category, but we need to look beyond that product category to see if the results are the same outside of that category — and probably, we need a bigger sample in order to gather more information about non-white groups.

Was it your feeling, though, that the advertisers are trying to make it a little more representative or more diverse?

Baumann: I don’t want to say that there hasn’t been any progress, because there has been some. But commercials don’t look like society. People in commercials are all more attractive, they’re generally wealthier and they’re younger than society.

How have people learned about your work? And you got lots of publicity — what has it done, what are the reactions?

Baumann: I think people intuitively think that there is an issue with racial representation, and that we kind of have just revealed or documented something that people already suspected. What we have done is show that the underlying racial ‘messages’ in advertising are more complex, and actually reinforce racial stereotypes*


*editor’s note
This interview has been edited and condensed.