Race and Ethnicity in Advertising

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Project Background

Advertising is a powerful force within society—both reflecting and shaping cultural norms. The depiction of race and ethnicity in advertisements in particular is complex and has evolved over time, including stereotypical depictions (such as Aunt Jemima or Frito Bandito) as well as advertising developed within communities of color. Cultural norms have also shifted over time, and many companies create advertising for international markets and must take local cultures into consideration. Duke’s John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History has strong collections on advertising history including the archives of some of the most prominent advertising agencies, trade associations, and people who worked in the industry. These collections include the papers of people of color who worked in advertising, collections that document advertising that targets minority populations as a consumer demographic, and advertising that depicts race and ethnicity.

Project Objectives

The Hartman Center proposes to shed more light on this history through the development of a digital resource featuring materials from its collections. There are visual collections with a wealth of imagery and document-based collections that put agencies’ and marketer’s campaigns and goals in context. A team of undergraduates will work together with guidance from the graduate student team leader and from the team’s faculty advisor to research this topic and then to determine how best to share their findings. The new resource will help students and researchers to more easily locate examples of advertising that touch on issues of race and ethnicity and to contextualize these examples within the larger story of race and ethnicity in advertising. An important element of the larger story is the growing inclusion of people of color as employees in advertising agencies during the twentieth century, spurred on by the Civil Rights Movement and the narrowing of target markets. Through their participation, project team members will further develop their own visual literacy and expand their understanding of the evolution of cultural norms related to race and ethnicity, while at the same time creating a lasting resource that will share their findings with the larger scholarly community.

Description of Client Organization/Faculty

The John W. Hartman Center contributes to the study of sales, advertising and marketing in society by preserving historical archives and sponsoring related programs at Duke University. Holding an extensive collection of more than 3 million items throughout the past two centuries, the Hartman Center provides the most comprehensive archive of industry history available today.

Skills Required

  • Interest in scholarship surrounding imagery of race and ethnicity and/or advertising 
  • Interest in using primary source materials for research 
  • Experience building websites
  • Attention to detail
  • Self starter
  • Ability to work with a team

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