A study of Canadian television advertising has found that whites are over-represented in commercials and racial stereotypes tend to be perpetuated where visible minorities appear.

Research by University of Toronto sociology professor Shyon Baumann examined 244 prime-time, food-related ads that ran on CBC, CTV and Global in 2008 and 2009.

He found that 87 per cent of the characters depicted were white, while only 80 per cent of Canadians are Caucasian.

“What we found was that there was an under-representation of some visible minority groups. Along with that we found that the way that different groups are portrayed –  it provides more opportunities for favourable portrayals of white characters, compared to black characters and Asian-Canadian characters,” Baumann said in an interview with CBC’s Lang & O’Leary Exchange.

'If companies want to play it safe and just use commissioned advertisements that are just generic, then it’s safest to go with white characters as the “default’ kind of person that can be used in any situation' - Researcher Shyon Baumann

Black people were more commonly associated with low incomes and low social status – working the factory floor, for example — while East and Southeast Asians tended to be depicted as unemotional, robotic "Asian technocrats," the study found.

Visible minority characters were heavily represented in ads for fast food.

But white people were shown as defenders of traditional food and agriculture – with farmers mainly depicted as white. They also were associated with nostalgia for the past, natural foods, high-brow food products, and nuclear family, implying white people had “healthy families.”

Baumann, who has studied all aspects of advertising for the past 30 years, said marketers are perpetuating stereotypes that already exist.

“We were hoping that because prior research had happened based on commercials that were aired 20 years ago, 15 years ago, that maybe things had changed, but what we found was much more of the same, rather than change,” he said.

Baumann said he didn’t think there was a business rationale for using so many white characters in advertising as many marketers are not basing the ad on market research, but on a perception of who might use their product.

“If companies want to play it safe and just use commissioned advertisements that are just generic, then it’s safest to go with white characters as the “default’ kind of person that can be used in any situation. So for that reason I think we see them used a lot,” he said.

Baumann said his intention is not to point to particular ads as a problem, but to raise awareness among marketers of the patterns they set.

He doesn’t believe guidelines or laws are helpful in changing systemic bias, but says marketers should try to think about the impact of their depictions.

“The media does have the power to shape our ideas about who people are. The media can reinforce cultural values that are already out there, so when we see commercials that feature characters that we are not used to seeing  — a black family eating at a restaurant rather than a white family — little by little if we are exposed to those ideas over time, it broadens the idea of what is normal,” Baumann said.