Primer: Stereotypes In Advertisement And Marketing Communication

Why we do what we do.

People might remember the picture above when Microsoft Poland photoshoped a white guys head over a black guys.

I admit, it was funny, I even chuckled a bit myself (it must be everyones shit-eating, corporate grins).

What I didn’t do however is obsess over this, as some media outlets have, because this happens all the time and everywhere in advertisement. I’d expected this picture to make it on PSDisasters, tumblr and make its rounds on Twitter or Facebook, but not the BBC. Sure, it’s usually not as overt and obvious as in this example, but as graphics designers that work in advertisement we deal with it every day.

I was especially surprised by the response of some of my fellow graphics designers that went into full shaming mode over this.

At A Glance

Like it or not, Graphics Designers working in advertisement and marketing are not artists.

Sure, you can be an artist in your spare time, create amazing collages, drawings, logos and whatnot, but not when you are working for a client and actually trying to get your job done.

Unless your client is either amazingly liberal concerning your work (which honestly never happens) or you have an already established, solid and world-renown reputation as a designer (in that case: congratulations, you are the 0.1% that made it), you will not be making an ad with high lofty ideals.

If you never had to do any of this, consider yourself incredibly lucky.

Advertisements are communication devices, they have the purpose to communicate to the consumer what the product/service is about and pull his strings to purchase it.

And the worst part? The worst part is that adverts have to communicate at a glance, you have to package and deploy the whole meaning at once. It’s like a nuclear bomb of impressions, it has to blow up, and it has to blow up good, because you only get one shot at this.

Ads are generally considered a nuisance by the population and hence consciously ignored (or at least people try), even worse, the public and private space is oversaturated with ads in all forms and sizes. If you don’t compress your message and fire it at the potential consumer, its going to be lost in the noise, even worse, your shots need to be precision strikes, hitting the targets emotional and sensory inputs precisely.

It’s war out there and you are loading the bombs -and- creating the delivery mechanisms.


Stereotypes are shortcuts. They are categories that exist in both a cultural and societal context.

Ethnicity, clothing, pose, posture, sex (gender), type (font), colors, they convey compressed meaning in an immediate fashion.

A person in glasses is considered intelligent or smart, a person in a labcoat conveys a scientist, people in suits convey business and economics, etc.

As a designer you don’t have the luxury to subvert stereotypes because you will not hit your target, you need to apply what -currently- works. This has little or nothing to do with if you agree with the stereotype or if you think they are applicable, you just -use- them.

Stereotypes can be seen as symbols in of themselves. If I want to show direction I will use an arrow (or arrow-like construct), if I want to show science, I will use a test-tube/guy in labcoat/bohr-model of the atom/etc.

I don’t care that 90% of science has nothing to do with test-tubes, guys in labcoats or outdated atomic models, because society doesn’t care either. They associated a symbol, a stereotype, with something and gave it additional context that I can now use, so why shouldn’t I?

The same simply applies when talking about the “sensitive” stereotypes everyone gets up in arms about like race or gender. Tell me one corporation that will willingly feature an arab or middle-eastern-looking guy on their front page?

Corporations based in, and originating from, Dubai don’t even do that.

Emirates Gas LLC Frontpage

They don’t do it because certain societal structures and perceptions prevent them from making it an effective tool. You want foreign western investors? You do not show people in turbans and ethnic garb.

If you want to convey science and education your don’t slap a redneck on your frontpage either.

Obviously there are educated rednecks, but they aren’t a symbol you can use.

I’m sorry if that offends you, but thats just how it is. It’s the status quo and your job as a designer (or marketing specialist for that matter) is not to make the world a better place, but to do your job.

You can make the world a better place in your spare time, you can subvert stereotypes, donate your design skills to progressive non-profits, do whatever pleases you, but at your desk you use the tools that are available. Your progressive politically correct web-banner will not change the world, and chances are it will actually cost your client customers (if you go against his wishes).

How many times did I get the directive to make a tanned persons skin lighter in photoshop so they don’t look too dark? Thousands.

How many times did I get the directive to replace the woman at the CNC machine with a man? Hundreds.

Walking The Fine Line

Of course the obvious question is where do we draw the line between using stereotypes as handy shortcuts for delivering compressed meaning and outright discrimination. I think that is something every graphics designer needs to decide for themselves in context of the work he is performing.

Its a risk vs benefit calculation on your and the marketings/communications part. If you think subverting the stereotype is worth it to grab another demographic and exclude parts the more conservative one you had, that might be motivation enough.

Remember, you, the consumer, only sees the finished product and might interpret it one way or the other, but the designer might actually know the client and his intentions as well as the company and might have used the -correct- tools. Symbols are constantly changing with society and picking the right ones, that will not lose you the goodwill of your customers while conveying compressed meaning, is the trick.

I find it often quite silly to describe corporations as “racist” or “misogynist” because that would imply a corporation is somehow a conscious, autonomous entity, which it is not. No corporation hates women or black people, they are not capable of hate, they are legal constructs.

I especially hate it when tag-lines read “Microsoft apologizes…” because it sounds like Clippy popped up at BBCs door and said that he is sorry.

Another question is do we reinforce the stereotypes by using them?

Yes, we do, but -that- is not the problem.

Reinforcing the meaning of an arrow to symbolize direction isn’t bad or harmful in of itself.

The problem is that the general population sometimes takes stereotypes as the -real- representation of something, which it is not. The trick is to have stereotypes, symbols, but understand that they are just that, symbols, mental shortcuts and hasty generalizations.

This problem can not be fixed by your design of a web-banner, it can only be fixed by education and experience that subverts someones perception.

A picture of a woman at the CNC machine will not make you feminist and make you reconsider how you treat women, an ethnic arab guy with a turban in a cockpit will not make you reconsider your experiences and perceptions of 9/11.

What will subvert your perception is actual contact with the subject for a long period of time. A change in perception is a long and drawn out process, an ad you glance at will not make any difference.

Unless you advocate actual legal regulations to force -all- advertisement to conform to certain rules of course, but thats another topic (and wrong).

Final Words

I’m not defending the Microsoft photoshop, it was shoddy, all around horrible and worthy of mocking.

This is about how we perceive stereotypes and the corporations or businesses that use them. We often have a tendency to ascribe malice where none was intended because we don’t have all the facts and like to anthropomorphise non-living entities and constructs.

Corporation and businesses are a prime target because certain elements of our education made us acutely aware how shit the capitalist system really is, but we need to work with it to sustain our precious consumerist society. The defense mechanism is obviously to bitch and moan about them because else we might suffer some major cognitive dissonance.

The designers job isn’t to change the world, it’s to convey meaning in the most compressed way possible.

Some ways are better than others, but symbols and stereotypes have a role to play in communication and will continue to do so, if you like them or not.

The old stereotypes might go away at some point, like the cartoon drawings of Asian people having buck-teeth, but they will be replaced by others (like Asians being good at maths/computers).

Use the tools you have and change them when they don’t do the job anymore.


2 Responses to Primer: Stereotypes In Advertisement And Marketing Communication

  1. Vince Hemsly says:

    Just nitpicking a tiny bit but you put “tumbler”, the name of the site actually doesn’t have an e. It is “tumblr”,it’s nothing major but just letting you know. Great article!

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