08/12/2013 03:22 EDT | Updated 08/12/2013 03:34 EDT

Racism On Canadian TV: Advertising Feeds Stereotypes, Study Finds


According to Canada’s advertisers, white people are traditionalists who like natural foods, and minority groups are into processed fast foods.

That’s hardly a hard and fast rule, but that’s the trend that emerged in a University of Toronto study of depictions of race in Canadian ads.

The study from assistant sociology professor Shyon Baumann and grad student Loretta Ho found white people are over-represented in Canadian advertising: While whites account for 80 per cent of Canada’s population, they account for 87 per cent of the characters in TV commercials.

And how whites are depicted differs notably from how minority groups are shown.

“Whites were also almost exclusively associated with healthier whole unprocessed foods, such as eggs. Blacks and East and Southeast Asians, on the other hand, were over-represented in fast food ads,” the researchers said in a statement Monday.

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The study — which the researchers say is the first to look exclusively at racial depictions in Canadian commercials — examined 244 prime-time, food-related ads that ran on CBC, CTV and Global in 2008 and 2009.

Canadian Business magazine found this YouTube video of an ad cited in the research. In this commercial for Honey Bunches of Oats, from Post Foods, the factory floor workers are all minorities, while the researcher in a lab coat is white.

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In many instances, the study found depictions of minorities leaned towards recognizable stereotypes. Black people were more commonly associated with low incomes and low social status, while East and Southeast Asians were depicted as unemotional, robotic "Asian technocrats."

Whites, by comparison, were associated with four major themes in food advertising: Nostalgia (white people as defenders of traditional food and agriculture), natural foods, high-brow food products, and nuclear family, associating white people with “healthy families.”

This sort of thing matters because “if you're consistently portrayed as only one type of person, for instance, technologically savvy but socially awkward, your identity and society's expectations of you are constrained by that very flat portrayal," Baumann said in a statement.

"What this study shows is that ads are reproducing perceptions of race in ways that continue to be problematic for people who are not White."

Canadian advertisers tend to be extremely sensitive to accusations of racism, but that doesn’t mean they avoid controversies altogether.

Pen maker Bic had to pull an ad off Canadian TV last year, after complaints stemming from its depiction of Asians. The ad featured a military official in an Asian prison speaking in an invented “Asian-sounding” language. The official offers amnesty to one prisoner, but when his pen fails to work, he decides it’s easier to simply use the “condemned” stamp, and sends the prisoner to his death.

Bic quickly withdrew the ad, and even set up a Twitter account solely for the purpose of apologizing.