- Images of Native Americans in Advertising
[Editor's Note: This article is a part of ADText.]
Throughout its history, American advertising has used language and imagery depicting various ethnic and racial groups. A great many of these representations of non-White people would today be labeled as racist and stereotypical. Although contemporary advertising generally strives to be sensitive to multicultural issues, there remain many places in advertising and marketing where greater efforts are possible.
This unit focuses specifically on Native American (including Alaskan and Hawaiian) ethnic imagery in advertising. It examines both older representations and some more contemporary ones. It seeks not only to survey the story of Native Americans and advertising but also to serve as a model for similar investigations of the relationship between other ethnic/racial groups and advertising.
2. Cigar Store Indians
The cigar store Indian is one of the earliest uses of Native American imagery in advertising and marketing. This symbol parallels the use of other identifying symbols for different types of commercial concerns, such as three gold balls for pawnshops and candy-striped poles for barbershops. Historically, such symbols came into use in medieval Europe when the population was largely illiterate and merchants needed an easy way to indicate the types of goods or services they offered.
In Europe, the earliest examples of cigar store Indians did not attempt to depict the physiognomy or lifestyles of actual Native Americans because carvers in the 1500s had seen none nor had photography been invented. Rather, this early imagery depicted either white Europeans or black Africans in Native American headdresses and costumes (such as kilts made of leaves or feathers). These early figures morphed over time into more complex and detailed representations of Native American cultures and peoples.
The use of cigar store Indians in the Americas dates from the late 1700s3 and only began to decline and largely vanish in the 20th century as restrictions on public spaces limited their use on sidewalks. Today cigar store Indians are largely collectors' items, found in museum collections or sold as modern reproductions to enthusiasts of Native American culture and Tobacciana.
3. Advertising Trade Cards
Advertising trade cards (akin to the more familiar, 20th-century “baseball cards”) were widely distributed in America in the late 1800s. The cards inserted into cigarette packages are perhaps the best known of this genre, but many other companies also distributed cards along with their products or as stand-alone advertising messages.
What made advertising trade cards particularly appealing to the American public were the colorful images they carried, typically in a series to encourage repeat purchases of a brand. For example, tobacco companies such as Allen & Ginter of Richmond and Duke of Durham distributed series of cards such as beautiful women, flags of all nations, fish, birds, ships, captains, coins, and jokes in the late 1800s. Many consumers collected the cards, often pasting them into albums for display.
4. Gratuitous Images
By the end of the 19th century, images of Native Americans had become commonplace in American advertising. Almost all of these images had nothing to do with the real lives of Native Americans nor even advertising products and services to them. Rather, these uses were gratuitous and, according to many critics, harmful from the point of view of the people represented.6 Their sole purpose was to incorporate colorful, exotic imagery into advertising directed at a non-Native market by drawing on one or another (supposed) characteristic of American Indian culture.
Looking back at the images from the early 20th century, the...