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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Audience reactions to the portrayal of black athletic apparel commercials Wilson, Brian


This thesis examines the reactions of black and non-black adolescent basketball enthusiasts to portrayals of black athletes in athletic apparel commercials. The research builds on work in media studies by Radway (1991), Morley (1980), and Jhally and Lewis (1992). In particular, Radway's concept of the "interpretive community" is evaluated, together with Morley's notion of the "cultural map", as frameworks for explaining audience reactions. Radway suggests that similarly located groups tend to have similar interpretive strategies with respect to media messages. This tends to result in similar "readings" of media texts by these groups. Morley proposes that these diverse audiences can be plotted on a "cultural map" that describes the culturally based interpretations made by these audiences. Jhally and Lewis posit that there are racially based interpretations of black television portrayals that differentiate audiences. The explanatory power of these assertions was evaluated in this thesis project by examining the relationship between race, social location and interpretive strategies in two groups of research subjects ~ black and non-black adolescent males. This work also builds on research in social inequality that theorizes about the positive and negative "influences" that black television portrayals have on viewing audience beliefs about blacks (Wonsek, 1992; Lewis and Jhally, 1992). The research schedule had 3 phases. In the first, a content analysis was conducted to document black representation in commercial messages aired during television broadcasts of 1994 NCAA basketball tournament games and 1994 NBA playoff games. A representative sample of 31 broadcasts was selected from a total of 44 broadcasts and the commercial messages were content analyzed for their racial representation. In the second phase, a sub-sample of 6 representative athletic apparel commercials featuring black athletes was drawn from the overall sample of commercials. This sub-sample was viewed by 7 groups of 2-8 subjects who routinely watch televised basketball (3 groups of 15-19 year old black males and 4 groups of 15-19 year non-blacks). Focus group reactions to the commercials and to related interpretive and race-related questions were recorded using questionnaires and videotaping. Transcripts were prepared from the videotapes and a thematic content analysis was performed on the questionnaires and transcripts. In the third phase, audience statistics were obtained from the broadcaster and used as a frame of reference for broadening and contextualizing the focus group findings (based on the demographic characteristics of the viewing audience). The study integrated the methods of content analysis and audience research respectively, in order to overcome the limitations of both classical content analysis research (that theorizes about audience interpretations on the basis of contents alone) and of audience research (that ignores the broader spectrum of television content). The content analysis results showed blacks to be comparatively underrepresented in the overall contents of the commercials messages and in most commercial types. However, blacks were vastly overrepresented in the athletic apparel commercial type. Audience statistics showed adolescent males to be frequent viewers of the NBA playoffs compared to their normal viewing patterns and compared to other demographic categories. The focus group finding relevant to the social inequality literature showed many black respondents to recognize the stereotypical portrayals of blacks in all areas of television programming. The respondents felt that these portrayals lead non-black audiences to see blacks more stereotypically in everyday life. The black respondents also appeared to identify with the black athlete portrayals, but were, for the most part, aware of the "myths" surrounding the mobility of blacks through sport and did not subscribe to these widespread beliefs. Most non-black respondents indicated that the portrayals of blacks and black athletes in the commercials were realistic, or suggested that they were uncertain about how realistic the portrayals were because of their inexperience with "real life" blacks. These findings suggest that black portrayals tend to increase perceived racism for the black respondents while appearing to inform the non-black respondents about "what blacks are like". The findings relevant to the youth culture literature showed the blacks and non-blacks to have common understandings of and preferences for the athletic apparel commercials and the athletes as they related to basketball, but to have distinctly "raced" perceptions of the black athletes whereby the blacks showed a cultural identification with the athletes that the non-blacks did not. The findings relevant to the interpretive literature showed the blacks and non-blacks to demonstrate a similar "cultural competency" with respect to basketball, however, their differences in cultural experience connected with race appeared to differentiate them as two different "interpretive communities". More generally, these findings describe the youths' positionings as television audiences, as consumers of popular culture and as readers of media text. This work has particular relevance theoretically and methodologically for the cultural studies discipline considering the underlying patterns that connected race, culture and interpretation in this audience ethnography.

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