Roundtable Issue: Conversations about Race and Ethnicity in Advertising
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A group of scholars and practitioners met in New York City on March 2, 2005 for a roundtable discussion on the subject of race, ethnicity, and multiculturalism in advertising. Fath Ruffins, curator of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution, moderated the discussion. Ruffins was the Head of the Smithsonian’s Advertising History Collections in the Archives Center from 1988–2000. Members of the Roundtable were Bernadette Calafell, Assistant Professor of Communications and Rhetorical Studies, Syracuse University; William M. O’Barr, Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University; Jack Tchen, Professor of History, New York University; Byron Lewis, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of UniWorld Group; Zan Ng, Chairman and Founder of New-A; and Jennifer Mak, marketing manager for Admerasia. Also participating in these discussions was Paula Alex, Executive Director of the Advertising Educational Foundation.

The format for the Roundtable was as follows: the scholars, Ruffins, Calafell, O’Barr, and Tchen, met for two hours in the morning to discuss the topic and to formulate issues for discussion. The advertising professionals joined the group over an informal lunch and continued the discussion in the afternoon.

The morning session began with introductory statements by Ruffins, Calafell, and Tchen.

Statement by Fath Ruffins (Smithsonian Institution)

Advertising and marketing are key aspects of what constitutes mediascapes1 today, in the United States, and in the rest of the world. In the United States, over the last 120 years, the role of advertising has changed—particularly the role of advertising as it has related to various ethnic and racial minority communities. Looking back thirty-five years, to the late 1960s, we see that the pace of change really increased.

We all know that stereotypical images dominated mass-market advertising, particularly before World War II. This continued certainly after World War II and there are continuities even today. Before World War II, back into the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, stereotypical imagery—which was really based on traditional forms of American humor and directed at predominately white, nativist, American audiences—was common. Humor was used to sell products. Humor and sentimentality were really the major modes of advertising visually and conceptually. This humorous form, as well as aspects of the sentimental form, stereotyped, to use our modern word, these racial and ethnic communities.

For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to use the term “ethnicity” as one general word to talk about communities that are defined by race, by language, by national origin, or by religious distinctions. This is only because it’s easier to say one word. Other people in this conversation may use other words to define these differences.

Advertising originated in religious publications in the late antebellum period, the 1840s through 1860s. When we look at the origins of what we might call modern advertising in the late 1880s and 1890s, advertisers, retailers, and manufacturers moved to mass-marketing strategies that constituted or sought to constitute a mass market of presumably middle-class consumers who shared various kinds of racial attitudes. These racial attitudes were in development at the very same time. We’re looking at the era of Jim Crow, the era of legal segregation in the United States, in which various racial and ethnic communities were defined in a very strict hierarchy, with no sense of blending or connection between them. Although there were racial and ethnic differences in every nation in the Americas, the United States is the only nation that institutes such a formal system of segregation. This very strict system of legal segregation is developing at the very same time that advertising is changing and markets are changing. Markets are becoming national; they are becoming mass; manufacturers are able to unify buyers across the country.

They are using techniques that we know of today, although they did not use the same words, such as direct mail coupons, including various kinds of free trinkets and collecting trade cards. Branding is new, so various kinds of brands begin...