Stereotypes – Social Categorisation

stereotype-adOften advertising is being criticised for portraying stereotypes – and although advertisers have somewhat toned down especially the use of gender stereotypes, stereotypes of all sorts can frequently be found in advertising.
This is because marketers like to use “social categorisation” (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Social categorisation means that people organise information into simplified categories, which includes people we have little information about. Thus, salient characteristics help to form a mental image of the person, and guide behaviour towards the person. See the example of the mini-advert on the right – where a woman (stereotype: “not technologically advanced”) depicts the ease of driving a mini. Similar uses can be found in many international adverts – for example for French perfumes in Asia where all that is said is a tagline in French (thus evoking the social stereotypes of style, luxury etc), or the classic Audi advertising in Britain which used “Vorsprung durch Technik” (thus evoking German stereotypes of advanced engineering etc).

While the use of stereotypes clearly helps to convey some messages in a more rapid form by playing on preconditioned ideas, more contemporary research, particular when it comes to ethnic stereotypes are more nuanced. For example, Hugenberg & Sacco (2008) show that while social categorisation still holds in principle, it is mostly effective when portraying stereotypes related to another group (i.e. someone the target audience does not identify with, or have little experience with). Thus, selling a Mini to women with the advertisement above is unlikely to be very successful (especially if the woman’s self-image is that she is just as savvy when it comes to driving as man). Further, using stereotypes in a globalising world may themselves become ineffective – as more and more people have in-depth experiences of “others”, and are less likely to easily categorise information into simple categories.

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