Cultural stereotypes in advertising

Published 9th November 2012
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I am sure many of you who live in the UK (and probably many who do not) have seen the ‘Dolmio’ adverts. Cheerful “Italian” puppets parading around the screen extolling the virtues of hearty lasagne made by “mamma” and implying that you at home can achieve the same pasta perfection by simply using a jar of the ‘Dolmio’ sauce. In the same way, I am sure that the opinion regarding the appropriateness of this advert, is divided.

On various forums throughout the web there are debates as to whether these adverts are racist. One of the resounding arguments for the adverts being racist, is that were it another country being portrayed in this way, say India or China, it would almost certainly be unacceptable to air the adverts on TV. Is that really the case though?

There is a long history of British advertising and there are numerous examples of different countries in these adverts. From curry to beer, advertisers pick out characteristics of the relevant culture and accentuate them. This gives the impression of familiarity and in the case of Dolmio for example, it suggests that the product is endorsed by the country from which it historically originates (whether it is actually made there or not)!

The desire to present a product as genuine – a true Indian curry, a proper Scottish porridge, an authentic Chinese Chow Mein and so on – is the driving force behind such adverts but the way in which they are carried out often has the opposite effect and can cause a company to come under fire. What is seemingly harmless could be considered offensive by some. Stereotypes are engrained in people’s minds. To many, the English appear a cold and reserved people, polite to the extreme, formal in every situation (even in the home). These stereotypes have developed throughout history and they exist for a reason. The image of an Italian farmer’s wife cooking up a feast for the family and exclaiming “mamma mia” at regular intervals plays on the knowledge that the Italians in general have a family-orientated culture and they know what good food is. That is not to say that there are Italians who cannot cook and who hate family dinners, just as it is very possible that there are some English people who do not love a good queue. Stereotypes are based on concepts of countries in general and most people know that they are not always an accurate representation of every person within a culture. Perhaps instead of a rustic scene of a rural farm in the Tuscan hills, ‘Dolmio’ should paint the modern picture of a two-bed flat in central Milan, but would that have the desired effect?

There are of course British adverts portraying areas all over the UK based on stereotypes. Farmers tending their land whilst speaking in a west country drawl, Northern builders sipping on a cuppa before heading “off ter pub” and so on. Does advertising work without stereotypes? Are they harmless fun or bordering on racism?

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