Selling Stuff With Liberal Chic

i-53432dcb1675d19c4ba39393edbb0864-cover-jun07.jpgBlogging here at Sb has many advantages, one of which is a free subscription to Seed. I received the latest four issues the other day and have been reading them with great interest. It’s a very pretty mag with great content.

One detail surprises me. Almost all Most of the models in the ads are black. I have an inkling what this may mean: let me explain.

  • Most of Seed’s readers are in the US.
  • In the US, black people are on average less well-educated and affluent than white people.
  • Therefore, marketing a US pop-sci mag primarily to black people would be a bad idea.
  • The ads are instead in all likelihood aimed at white academics.
  • Seed has an explicit liberal bent.
  • By advertising in Seed, companies aim at getting name recognition and positive connotations for their products among liberal white academics.


  • Seed’s advertisers choose black models because they believe that this will give the magazine’s liberal white academic readers a warm fuzzy feeling. They hope to associate their products in the readers’ minds with civil rights, Democrat-party liberalism, “We Shall Overcome” and “let’s win the next election”.

This is fine by me. But I think it’s kind of obvious and more than a bit silly. I mean, come on: the percentage of Seed’s readers who are black must be way below the percentage of the United States’ citizens who are black. And if we look at the magazine’s writers, well — the percentage approaches zip.

OK everybody, tell me: am I reading this correctly?

Update same day: Derek wisely suggested that I offer some data. Here’s a run-down of all ads with photographs of people in the two most recent issues of Seed, nos 9 and 10. I have classified the models as either black, white or Asian and added available information on who they are and what they are presented as doing in the pictures.

Ad Company Models
#9 p 0-1 Intel Black dancer: anon
#9 p 9 Honeywell Four people (2 white, 1 black, 1
Asian) in white coats: anon
#9 p 11 Maxell ?
#9 p 47 Schering-Plough White PhD: Tom Koestler
#9 p 95 SLOOH Black swimmer: anon
#9 p 97 RosettaStone White farm boy: anon
#9 p 98 Tanqueray Black drinker: Tony Sinclair
#10 p 0-1 Intel Black dancer: anon
#10 p 9 Maxell ?
#10 p 20 SLOOH Black swimmer: anon
#10 p 29 Honeywell Asian in white coat: anon
#10 p 31 Tanqueray Black drinker: Tony Sinclair anon
#10 p 38-39 Dow Chemical Black nude labourer/eye candy: anon
#10 p 51 Schering-Plough White PhD: Tom Koestler
#10 p 59 RosettaStone White farm boy: anon
#10 p 79 W.W. Norton White Nobel laureate: Eric R. Kandel

A few observations.

  • Out of 14 ads with classifiable people shown, eight show blacks, six whites and two Asians.
  • All people on ad spreads are handsome anonymous black men.
  • 50% of ads with whites identify them by name and academic honorific. 25% 13% of ads with blacks identify them by name, none by honorific, and the single identification is in fact that of a fictional character. No ad identifies an Asian.
  • People of all races sometimes wear white coats. Apart from that, blacks dance, swim, drink gin and labour in the nude. Meanwhile, whites receive the Nobel prize and are farm boys.

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32 thoughts on “Selling Stuff With Liberal Chic

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head, with one bang. Perceptive insight!

    It’s nice to read a lefty-liberal point this out. In the US the only people who do so are bitter right-wing crank racists.


  2. Almost all? I’m not doubting you, as I don’t have a Seed subscription myself, but it might be nice if you’d take a few minutes to do the scientific thing and quantify that for us with a quick tally of one issue, or n random pages each of few issues. There’s some interesting psychological work that’s been done on how many of a minority looks like “almost all” to a member of their local majority, and it’s deceptively small (it only takes something like one third black people to make the white people feel like they’re in the minority IIRC).

    Quantitative isues aside, let’s assume it’s a lot more than the US average, and speculate why. I think that what’s happening is that Seed doesn’t choose the content of its advertising: its advertisers do.

    None of the advertisers wants to be the one with the whitebread (hate that word) advert, so everybody goes for the Benetton look. It’s a sort of Prisoner’s Dilemma: the global optimum, in terms of not looking silly en masse, would be to “cooperate” and share out the multiracial goodness, but everybody wants to “defect” and grab it all for themselves. It’s the locally optimal, globally suboptimal choice.


  3. What I’ve noticed is how rarely American adverts show apparently mixed-race couples although when I was last in Britain they seemed quite common there. Here in Canada there are some, particularly white male/Chinese female.

    On a related note, a Chinese friend (married to a German) said she was following an American soap in which a romance developed between a couple of different races, but she knew it would break down because there is always ‘something’ not quite right about such liaisons.


  4. Horrors! Black models in a science magazine! Dr. Martin, I’m so glad your on top of this highly important issue. And your incisive psycho-speculation that the ads are there to appeal to liberal scientist guilt! Wow! Now, that’s highly scientific, I’m sure. As one of the above commentators suggests, why not be even more really truly scientific about this and count the ads. You could use three categories, white models, black models, other racial types, and the ones you can’t tell. Dr. Martin, you could spend hours and hours tabulating models by race. But, do you mean, models in the foreground or models in the background? And, is there a statistically significant difference between the number of black models in this magazine as opposed to other similar magazines. Or dissimilar magazines? How about comparing entertainment mags with science mags? How many standard deviations above or below the mean? etc. etc. By the way, the model in the ad on your blog page seems to be either Black or Asian, but certainly not white. Does this mean you too are part of the liberal guilt thing? (And, yes, it was four categories. I’m glad you’re counting carefully)


  5. No, it’s because minorities were largely absent from ad campaigns for many decades. Models and the people that hired models to promote their products had their own version of a civil rights movement on through the 80s. Advertisers have come to realize this is a very diverse country, with a fast approaching majority minority. There’s more ethnic diversity and blended people in the US now, than probably at any other time in the countries history. So incorporating a little bit color into ad copy, is not only the right thing to do but arguably good for business.


  6. Enrique, it’s a pop-sci magazine. All ads in it are most likely intended to appeal to liberal white academics. At the very least, the ads carefully avoid alienating that demographic. Advertising agencies aren’t driven by political correctness, but they know that liberal white academics are.


  7. The demographics of Scienceblogs is like that of an organic upscale supermarket: white, multiply degreed, professional class. (Yes, I know that neither are homogenous monoliths and there are exceptions.)

    Yesterday, I went to Wal-Mart, where the customers looked like much of America: working class whites (including obese women, which are rarer in professional SES circles) and working class Mestizo Hispanics fluent in Spanish. Later I stopped by a local organic co-op (which carries leftie magazines), where the customers were white and well-off. (The co-ops’ employees were more varied: young poor granola-type whites, African immigrants…) The reviled Wal-Mart was more diverse and all-American than the progressive co-op.

    It’s fine for Seed readers to indulge in some ‘guilty white liberal’ self-congratulations by viewing inaccurately diverse ads. But what they ought to do is ask themselves how they can encourage more nonwhites, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, to consider careers in science.


  8. Just to back up your assertion that Seed is marketed primarily to a white audience, I have a fair amount of evidence from Casual Fridays studies that a very small portion of CogDaily’s readers are black — probably less than 1 percent. Of course, CogDaily doesn’t “market” itself to any audience other than people interested in cognitive psychology.


  9. Thanks Dave! Have you also got data on what percentage of those black readers look really hot and muscular as they street-dance and labour sweatily in the nude?


  10. Alright, I’ll be the first to admit that I find the Tanqueray significantly more appealing in the hand of Tony Sinclair than I would in that of Tom Koestler … or even Neil deGrasse Tyson for that matter. Can’t really put my thumb on the reason why.


  11. Which ad? I’ve got them all turned off in Firefox. After turning them on, I see a lump of coal with legs up top, a “US Green Card” banner to the right (no person there) and an ad for a Swedish ISP bottom right (no person there either).

    I think we all see different ads depending on our IP numbers.

    But your point must be that race is not well-defined. Well, strictly speaking, you’re right. Does that mean that you think it’s meaningless to say, for instance, that black people are economically disadvantaged in the US?


  12. Thanks, Martin. As the same companies are likely to have bought the same advert for several consecutive issues, may I suggest crosstabulating page against issue for ad?

    (or just “Y” or a tick–I don’t expect page no. to yield useful data in the end)


  13. In “Stupid White Men”, Michael Moore noted the number of companies that have offices filled entirely with white folks…but have a black woman in reception.

    I thought he was exaggerating for comic effect when I read it – but unfortunately it looks like he wasn’t.

    I’m a little surprised this thread has only one post implicitly calling you a racist. It’s the usual response from people who are liberal but confused when confronted with evidence of racial tokenism.


  14. “I’m a little surprised this thread has only one post implicitly calling you a racist. It’s the usual response from people who are liberal but confused when confronted with evidence of racial tokenism.”

    I hope no one thought that my comment accused Martin of racism. I meant nothing of the sort. I was being quite literal and my comment was meant to bewail the fact that honesty about racial matters is taken to be racist.

    As for models and “qualifications”, anyone who gets a job through an agency is “qualified” — tall, skinny, gorgeous. I’ve worked in the creative end of advertising. Models are chosen very carefully. Racial and ethnic characteristics are at the top of the list.


  15. “By the way, the model in the ad on your blog page seems to be either Black or Asian, but certainly not white.”

    I think you believe the bloggers here to have more control over the ads than they do. As I understand it, Seed selects the ads.


  16. Colst, that’s correct. I never see the ads until they go on-line. Usually, thanks to Firefox and Flashblock, I never see them at all. If I really hate one, I can write to Seed and complain, and then maybe they will be less likely to run something like that again. But the only real leverage us Sbloggers have on this issue is that we can collectively criticize an advertiser or ad on our blogs.


  17. Interesting observation, Martin. However, considering this as someone who has developed/commisioned and placed ads, I’d like to add in one more factor. It is highly unlikely that the ads are designed specifically to appear in Seed. You develop the ad, and then place it in multiple journals likely to be read by those you want to reach. As an advertiser, limiting placement to a single journal reduces the chances it will be read, and since the cost of developing an ad is high, you hedge your bets by spreading placement.

    Thus, if there is any reasoning by advertisers about the races of people in ads, it is more likely to be influenced by what the advertiser thinks will make the ad appealing to its intended readers than by the readership of a single magazine.

    Obviously, there is a correlation: the advertiser who understands who he wants to reach and has designed the ad to appeal to those, will also be likely to place it in journals those people read.

    Thus, the interesting thing in this case is if those advertisers place ads with a different ratio of races in magazines read by other groups of people. Is the Tanqueray ad you see in Seed the same as the one in an inflight magazine, a business publication or Gunowners Weekly?


  18. I believe the advertising agencies have identified pix of black people as a selling point when advertising in mags read by white liberal academics. Are there any blacks in Gunowners Weekly? And is Gunowners Weekly read by any white liberal academics?


  19. Exactly my point: you will come to different conclusions about why there are many blacks in ads in Seed depending on if those advertisers have the same ratio in ads in other magazines, or if they are different.

    That is, does the advertiser have this high ratio because he thinks it is broadly “politically correct”, or does he use it only towards certain groups where he thinks it will make the ad appealing? You cannot reach a conclusion on that question by studying only Seed.


  20. I’m afraid we shall never know for certain. The only people around Sb who are likely to read Gunowners’ Weekly are the creationist trolls who keep getting banned from commenting. And even if they don’t get banned, they’re highly unlikely to want to collaborate in our ruminations.

    Anyway, regardless of what the media landscape around Seed looks like, surely its editors must be held responsible for what that particular mag looks like.


  21. I agree, we will probably never know. Incidentally, I have no idea if a magazine called “Gunowner’s Weekly” even exists, I just made up the name as an “anti-type”.

    Certainly a magazine has a responsibility also for the commercial content in it, and most magazines probably have some kind of policy to help safeguard against ads that discriminate in some way. In practice, though, how would they actually implement that?

    Can you see the editors of Seed saying to Intel: “No, our black ratio has already exceeded 0.45 this month, so we won’t let you place that ad.”? I believe that is highly unlikely, if the ad is otherwise OK…


  22. Racial discrimination is really only a secondary complaint of mine here. It’s sad that black people are depicted in such brainless ways, but what primarily bugs me is that Seed’s ads (like most ads everywhere) are an affront to the readers’ intelligence. Who do they think they’re fooling? This skinny cracka ain’t never gonna be a brutha.

    Still, there’s a disturbing possibility. Maybe the ad agencies are actually operating in a highly effective manner. Maybe most people are so stupid that stupid ads actually work. It wouldn’t surprise me. Though I believe that in Seed’s case, the advertising people may be dealing with an unusually bright readership.


  23. Martin, thanks for this post. I have to say the same types of thoughts crossed my mind the last time I read Seed. The ads made me think of the kinds of ads I see in magazines like SWE Magazine (Society of Women Engineers) and AWIS Magazine (Association for Women in Science). There, it is usually companies advertising that want to display themselves as being all bursting with diversity, and so they round up every Latina, Asian, and Black female employee they can find for their ads talking about how diversity is a core value of their company and blah blah blah. The same company advertising jobs in some other mag may never show any woman at all, let alone the Rainbow Coalition, let alone trumpet how diversity is their core value. No, then it’s just ad copy about the job. If you look in the mags for professional societies like SHPE or NSBE, you’ll see the engineering company ads featuring all Latino/a or Black engineers, respectively.

    Well, in Seed, the majority of the readers probably are white, but you can’t just run ads with all whites…it would indeed offend the white liberal audience. Despite what Thinker says, companies do develop different ads for the same product or job for different target audiences. They don’t find it too costly to do this; on the contrary, they find it extraordinarily effective.

    Regarding the Onion piece: it would be even funnier if it hadn’t actually happened in real life. It was at the University of Wisconsin. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in an article titled “In Brochures, What You See Isn’t Necessarily What You Get”
    ( )

    When Diallo Shabazz was searching for a college several years ago, he thumbed through admissions brochures to find students who looked like him. So Mr. Shabazz, who is black, says he wasn’t initially surprised last fall to discover his face on the cover of a brochure for the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he is a senior.

    But then he realized that the photograph showed him amid a sea of white faces at a football game that he had not attended.

    University officials apologized to him after admitting that they had pasted his face into the scene to make the crowd look more diverse. But for Mr. Shabazz, the doctoring of the picture wasn’t the issue. “It’s much easier to falsely portray diversity instead of creating policies and programs — and backing them up with budgets — to actually create diversity on your campus,” he says.


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