When I was in college, I took a class on Visual Communications. It was a surprisingly useful class, and one that pretty much everyone should have to take. Recently a random memory from this class came to mind.
We were assigned a project wherein we each selected a magazine and then analyzed the advertisements therein. We had to go through every single page of tha magazine, count the number of pages with vs without ads, and then for every single ad we had to tally certain info such as: how many people appear, what gender(s) are they, what race(s) are they, etc. Though we each worked alone on our specific magazine, we were assigned to a group based on the type of magazine we were analyzing, and then we had to do our presentation together. So everyone doing sports magazines were in one group, everyone doing news magazines were in another, etc. You can probably see, just from the fact that this is an assignment, exactly where this is going. Obviously, the idea is going to be that advertisers use different types of visual communication to target different audiences, and then likely a discussion will ensue about the inherent biases and hidden messages in something as seemingly innocuous as a magazine ad.
I analyzed GQ, which put me in one of the lossest, least-cohesive categories: Lifestyle Magazines. A sort of catch-all category, really. On day one we sat down as a group and went around telling everyone which magazine we had picked and what it was about. So for me- GQ, men’s magazine, kinda snooty. We get to one girl’s turn, and she’s selected Ebony. “So, what’s Ebony about?” we asked. “Oh, it’s just kinda general stuff, like recipes and fashion and news and stuff.” Well that sounded very vague. We glanced at her magazine and went, “Oh, wait… it looks like this is a black magazine. It’s targeted towards black people. Right?” She kinda shrugged, as if she didn’t see it. It was hard to tell what was going on here. This girl was, frankly, very dumb. So did she honestly not understand what her magazine was? Or was she in defensive mode because it’s obviously racist to label something black as “other?” Who knows. We moved on.
After we’d each analyzed our magazines, we got together again to compile our data. To nobody’s shock, our data of course revealed that advertising in America is hella racist. Almost all of the people appearing in all of our magazines were white, or at best racially ambiguous. And that would end up being the case for every other magazine from all of the other groups. The exception, of course, was Ebony. Ebony was the only magazine with black people in it. This was a very significant statistic. So when we were dividing up who would present on which of our tabulated statistics, we were like “Well, it’s pretty obvious the Ebony stats are the most significant here, so it makes sense, so would you like to present this one?” She said sure.
Then we got to presentation time. We popped up our graphs on racial data, and there was the gigantic obvious outlier data in the Ebony column. She starts just reading off the graph, giving the stats but not adding any commentary. When she got to the Ebony column, her presentation went something like this. “And as you can see, Ebony has X amount of African Americans in their ads, which is more than in other magazines. I… don’t know what this means.” AND THAT WAS IT!!! We just moved on to the next slide! No commentary like “Despite being a sizable proportion of Americans, African-Americans are not proportionally depicted in mainstream magazines. The only magazines with fair African-American representation are those that are specifically targeted towards this community.” Nope! Just “I don’t know what this means.”
I guess usually if I bring up a story like this, it’s because it reminds me of something happening in present day and we can apply lessons to it. And I’m sure I could do that no problem. But in this case, the story just popped back into my head and I went “Oh yeah! I’d almost forgotten!” and I wanted to write it down so I didn’t forget it again.
But I guess the reason is stuck with me, and the reason it’s still relevant in a million contexts today, is that it is frustrating how often we can be presented with all the facts we need to form an educated understanding, and yet, somehow still just miss the point. In this case it had to do with racial representation, but this could have been applicable to anything. If she’d had a sports magazine that only showed men, and someone else had a home and garden magazine that only represented women, and this student had presented that and said “I don’t know what this means,” my head would have exploded just as hard.
PS: I really, really wish I could remember the rest of the stats we gathered in that class, because it was legitimately super fascinating. The Ebony stats were obvious before even starting, but some of the other stuff was more surprising. Like when do/don’t we show people’s faces, etc.