Trade Characters and Tokens

Is culture being branded?

In modern societies, the different media are especially important sites for the production, reproduction and transformation of ideologies. Ideologies are of course, worked on in many places in society and not only in the head. But institutions like the media are peculiarly central to the matter since they are, by definition, part of the dominant means of ideological production. (Hall 18)


Trade characters in marketing are known as the visual symbols associated with particular products. However, as Barbara Phillips points out in her article, Defining Trades Characters and Their Role in American Popular Culture, "All trade characters are based on the skillful manipulation of stereotypes. [They] have a subtle and persuasive influence that gains power through repetition. Once a stereotype of a group is embedded in folklore, it can effect an individual's thoughts and actions." These actions can result in perpetuating negative views and opinions. (Phillips, 154). Phillips goes on to explain that as the social construct and ideas change, so does a product's trade character. For instance, the depiction of African Americans through the trade characters of Aunt Jemima and Sambo are no longer appealing. Therefore, they're marketing strategies have changed.

What if a prevailing trade character is in itself a prevailing stereotype? What is the product that the trade character is trying to promote and persist, is a presupposed and slighted cultural "identity"? Take for instance the "Latin takeover" of Ricky Martin. He is promoted as the red-hot Latin man, swinging his hips making women drool. However, as record producer Gustavo Santaolalla states, "It's like rhythm and blues with some timbales thrown in. These records sell a very white American tourist-like appreciation for what the Latino world is really like. It has nothing to do with musicians like Willie Colon, Luis Miguel, of Cafe Tacuba..." (Lechner, 61).

The same could be said about the West Indian caricatures that are most often depicted in American cinema. "Negative stereotyping of African Americans in film has been a longstanding practice. These stereotypes have also been applied -- especially in recent films -- to West Indians. Centering on what has become the symbolic West Indian -- the Rastafarian -- these stereotypes also portray West Indians as coons, criminals, and so forth. However, even more than is the case for African Americans, the stereotyping of West Indians in film embraces notions of Blacks as "primitives" by consciously invoking notions of African "savagery." As West Indians become a more visible presence in the United States, anti-West Indian stereotypes are likely to increase rather than wane. This likelihood bodes ill for the perception and treatment of West Indians, in particular, and Blacks, in general." (Milton, 83)

Tokenism is also another marketing play that should be addressed. The difference between tokenism and trade charater is that, tokens have no connecting product. Often in advartising and cinema, a degree of "multiculturalness" is desired by the powers that be. Therefore, shades of brown are used as colorful, but vapid, back drops. In a study done in 1997 sCharles R. Taylor and Barbara B. Stern found that, out of all the minority groups, Asian-Americans were the most often used "tokens" in television and advertising . "Asian-Americans are victims of tokenism, for they are the minority most likely to be depicted as anonymous figures in the backgrounds. Their presence as token faces in a crowd had negative consequences for both first-generation immigrants and the U.S. born."

In another response to the popular practice of tokenism, John McCarthy writes in his article, Adjusting the Color, "More diversity does not automatically translate into more entertainment value, let alone into racial equity. What is missing is the crucial step of translating a bigger universe of characters and stories into better characters and stories. Ethnicity id not an ingredient that can be added according to some recipe for better, more just or more true-to-life television."

Therefore, with the perpetual use of trade characters and tokenism in mass media, what sorts of ideologies can these practice overtly nurture and/or subliminally instill? Also, in what respect are these practices considered as cultural "branding", is it the same as cultural profiling?