What Is This Project?



The Advertising Educational Foundation's Race & Ethnicity in Advertising site is an educational project focused on providing students, professors, advertising industry professionals and other users an important and rare look into the ways that race and ethnicity have shaped advertising and the ways that advertising has shaped our understanding of and conversations about race and ethnicity.

We are currently in the beta phase, which means that you have the opportunity to use and experience the site first: to provide feedback and to shape the look, feel and content of the final site. We are deeply committed to creating a site that is content-rich, aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly.

Project Keywords

Race, ethnicity and advertising are the keywords for this project. Below are our definitions:


Today scientists have shown that there is only one race—the human race. In the past, we know that many people did think that there was a biological basis for race. However, scientists and other researchers have clearly proven that the idea of different races is totally inaccurate. There are phenotypical variations among people: humans have different eye colors, skin colors, and hair types. Nonetheless, a kidney is a kidney in all people. Biologically all humans are the same species (have the same genotype.)

Despite the fact that “race” is not biological, racial notions were and to some degree still are pervasive in American society. Ideas about race still involve deeply held beliefs that structure how we see ourselves and how we see others. American history includes racial slavery and the forcible displacement of native peoples (Indians) from their homelands. After the Civil War, beginning in the late 1870s, Americans developed a racial hierarchy that in many states legally defined people by race and separated them into different racial categories. This racial hierarchy was called segregation, and sometimes colloquially referred to as “Jim Crow.” Although the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution (1868, 1870) stated that all people were “equal before law,” racial practices, attitudes, and beliefs limited the freedoms of many peoples of color for decades, not just African Americans. Supreme Court decisions in the 1940s and 1950s and laws passed in the 1960s defined racial segregation as unconstitutional.

Important Note
Acknowledging the historical legacy of race in American society means exploring the representations of various groups of European Americans (whites) alongside those of African Americans, Asian Americans, South Asian Americans, American Jews, Native Americans (Indians), and other groups. By making whiteness more visible as a racial category, we can more fully understand the history of race and ethnicity in advertising.

For more information about race as a keyword, see the American Anthropological Association's website.


Ethnicity is a concept that refers to the cultural traditions, ideas and practices that a distinct group of individuals share. Those individuals identify with each other on the basis of a real or a presumed genealogy, ancestry or nationality. Cultural (or racial and ethnic) identities are often expressed through language, foodways, religious beliefs and practices, styles of dress, shared historical experiences and even distinct, urban neighborhoods or rural areas.

In the United States before about 1970, the terms “ethnicity” or “ethnic group” generally referred to European immigrant groups with national origins and cultural identities that were seen as different from the prevailing Anglo-American cultural traditions and practices. In the 21st century, many younger Americans use the term “ethnicity” to refer to people who are from Asia, Africa and South America. In an earlier time, most of these people would have been seen as “racial” not “ethnic groups.”


In the Internet age of Facebook, Instagram and smart phones, we are awash in visual imagery. Yet, much of this is unmoored, that is detached from larger historical and cultural contexts. For example, musical and visual sampling involving mashing up together sounds and images that were originally quite separate. Therefore, it can be difficult for listeners and viewers to determine the historical origin and meaning of particular images and sounds. The research values of advertising as a visual medium is that it is grounded in its goal of selling products. Therefore, it gives us a standard by which to understand and evaluate visual images and messages.

While we usually think of advertising as existing in a magazine, on a billboard or in between content on YouTube or Hulu, this project has a more expansive scope. We also include album covers, book covers, sheet music, postcards and more because they are essentially advertisements for those products.

This project looks critically at advertising from the 1890s to the present in order to provide a historical and thematic view of how race and ethnicity have been and continue to be represented. We invite you to see what groups are (and are not) represented and how that has changed (and not changed) over time.