A closer look at ads

Jennifer Dostal

She said advertising is just like the “little Energizer bunny.”

But Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, one of the first African-Americans to receive a doctorate in advertising, said unlike the fluffy, pink bunny, the social messages in advertising are not harmless.

On Thursday, Kern-Foxworth said advertising has very powerful social messages, which can have a detrimental effect on society.

“It’s very influential, implicit, subliminal and covert, but also highly provocative and influential in the socialization of people,” she said. “Advertising has been used to polarize and solidify racial relations.”

In a lecture and slide show in the Sun Room of Memorial Union, Kern-Foxworth, an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Texas A&M, spoke about advertising’s power in perpetuating racial and sexual stereotypes.

Kern-Foxworth reviewed advertising history from the first American ads, to the first depiction of an African-American in a nonracist ad, to present American ads. Advertising has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go, she said.

Advertising around the turn of the century depicted blacks as “subservient, docile, stupid, ignorant and ugly,” she said. Common themes were blacks as cannibals, black children as “gator bait,” and blacks doing manual labor, she said.

When a surplus of watermelons threatened to drop the market price, blacks were featured in watermelon advertising to encourage whites to buy the produce. She said this depiction was created because “blacks are culinary experts and anything they like whites will like,” she said.

The first study of the effects of advertising on conception was performed in 1932. The study questioned 100 Princeton students. The students described blacks as “lazy, stupid, criminal and dependent on society.” A study in 1990 found the same characteristics attributed to blacks, she said.

The modern result can be attributed to the power of advertising and media on an audience’s perception of people different from themselves, Kern-Foxworth said. People still choose to stereotype blacks as poor, criminals and crack addicts, because media coverage is so biased, she said.

Kern-Foxworth also reviewed the stereotypical depiction of women and women’s issues in advertising. She said most people have an antiquated view of women and choose to view them as “weak, stupid and dumb.”

Women are often depicted as “Superwomen, sex objects, homemakers and dumb blondes in advertising,” she said. “The glass ceiling is there,” she added.

Kern-Foxworth used an example of an ad using sex appeal to sell a product that Cosmopolitan magazine refused to run. During the slide show, she showed an ad produced by Candies shoes which featured Jenny McCarthy, MTV’s “Singled Out” ex-emcee, sitting on a toilet with her panties around her ankles.

“It’s something you just can’t miss. A woman sitting on the toilet with her panties down,” she said. “They’re attention-grabbers. Advertisers have discovered if you get embroiled in a controversy your sales go through the roof.”

She also commented on the rising number of positive depictions of Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and physically challenged people in advertising. She said the change has occurred because companies are now aware of the buying power of the groups.

Kern-Foxworth has written two books. Alex Haley, author of “Roots” and “Queen,” wrote the preface to her first book, “Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” Her most recent book, “Facing Difference: Race, Gender and the Mass Media,” she co-authored with Shirley Biagi.

Kern-Foxworth has received more than 35 major recognitions and awards. In 1995, Dollars and Sense magazine named her one of the Best and Brightest Professional Women in America. She has also written more than 55 articles and her commentary has appeared in numerous national magazines.