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Advertising May Mislead People into Thinking They’re Part of Shrinking Middle Class

Research from Wisconsin School of Business finds print ads greatly overrepresented middle, upper classes while lower class and working class people were underrepresented

By Wisconsin School of Business

January 9, 2018

For decades, media pundits and economic analysts have been talking about the shrinking American middle class and growing income inequality in the United States. But even as real middle-class incomes have declined and the middle class has been eroded by inflation and recessions, nearly half of Americans believe they belong to the middle class. Why do people hold fast to that notion when reality suggests otherwise?

New research from the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Madison suggests that images and messages about social class in advertising may be contributing to that misperception. Tom O’Guinn, Wisconsin School of Business professor of marketing and Thomas J. Falk Distinguished Chair in Business, along with Erika L. Paulson of Quinnipiac University, reviewed more than 1,300 print advertisements from 1950 to 2015 and found that the middle, upper middle, and upper classes were greatly over represented when compared to the actual class makeup of the country. In contrast, the working and lower classes were underrepresented.

“Advertising isn’t just selling branded goods—it’s delivering images and messages that tell a wide range of stories and many of those stories involve perceptions of social class,” says O’Guinn. “Ads often depict a world of prosperity and abundance that promises upward mobility and access to the American Dream. Many ads picture the middle class in a way that encourages identification from readers, so it should come as no surprise that at times, the actual middle class in advertising is twice the size of the middle class in the real world.”

For most of the period covered by the study, low income consumers rarely appeared in mass circulation print advertising, averaging only 3.4% of the individuals pictured, compared to the roughly 20% of the population that qualifies. And while roughly one-third of Americans fall into what is typically considered the middle class, 58.2% of those people portrayed in ads during the study period were identified as middle class.

In addition to considering the volume of class depictions in ads, the study also examined the unique ways each social class are pictured in advertising, identify a number of common themes that ran through the decades covered. These include:

  • lower income consumers, despite being very good customers of many consumer packaged goods, are rarely shown, and when they are typically included in ads for charitable/philanthropic causes or in ads describing a firm’s social responsibility initiatives (i.e. Crest’s “Save the Children Dental Foundation” ad), not as valuable and legitimate customers.
  • working class people portrayed as having “secret knowledge”, valuable insights that those above them in the social order don’t have, but can acquire via consumption (i.e Palmolive ad); this fits nicely with our current populist moment—the forgotten working class possesses valuable common sense and know-how, while the elites are incompetent in the ways of daily living.
  • traditional depictions of the middle class “domestic idyll”, such as a family enjoying the coziness of home featuring a branded product, along with comic ads that create an “inverted idyll” only to have the branded product provide relief and restore order (i.e. ads for Campbell’s Soup and Oldsmobile); here is where the American Dream consumer is portrayed and there is no class envy, all can get ahead in America if you chose the right path (and brands).
  • representations of the upper middle class that show viewers of ads a secret peek or voyeuristic glimpse at how this class of consumers lives and consumes (i.e. Tetley Tea ad). We are allowed to peek inside the aspirational class in America without direct contact or evaluation.
  • the 1% are over-portrayed, but are typically celebrities rather than captains of industry, as they were prior to the 1960s. Apparently, celebrities, particularly those who were not born wealthy, are confirmation that “anyone can still make it.”

“In the post-World War II period, advertising clearly recognized certain societal changes, shifting the portrayal of women from homemakers to career women, gradually picturing men performing childcare duties, and featuring racial and ethnic minorities more frequently and in increasing positions of responsibility,” says O’Guinn. “But what is striking is that the shifting fortunes of different social classes are barely seen, even though we went from an unprecedented economic expansion after the war to a period of stagnation in the 1970’s and a gradual decline of the middle class.”

Researchers selected ten random advertisements from one randomly selected issue of each of ten magazines with the highest circulation every fifth year, beginning in 1950 and running through 2015. These included such publications as AARP The Magazine, Time, TV Guide, Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, Life, People, National Geographic, The Saturday Evening Post, and Reader’s Digest. A group of several coders were provided demographic information, encompassing education, occupation, and income to assist them in reviewing visual information in the ads to determine class representations.

The paper, “Marketing Social Class and Ideology in Post-World-War-Two American Print Advertising” appears in the Journal of Macromarketing.