Ethnic media are media vehicles (e.g., specific programs, publications, promotional pieces) that carry culturally relevant messages designed for and targeted to a particular ethnic group. Studies have demonstrated the rapid growth and success of ethnic media in North America and throughout the world (Deuze 2006; Gross 2006; Ojo 2006). In the past, media planners were guided by the assumption that they could capture ethnic minority audiences using the same general messages and mainstream media that appealed to majority audiences (Askey 1995). However, given the current extent, growth rates, and buying power of ethnic minority members’ media use patterns, and better understanding of this, there has been a greater effort to target ethnic minorities with culturally relevant media and messages. In fact, research suggests that ethnic media rather than mainstream media may be the most effective way to reach and persuade minority groups (La Ferle & Lee 2005).
Recently, the New America Media Foundation (Chan 2002) found that culturally relevant media reach on average 84 percent of ethnic minorities like Blacks, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans. Also, over 80 percent of minorities reported that they get information through ethnic television, radio, and publications, and over two-thirds reported they preferred ethnic media to mainstream media, particularly for news information (Conner 2004). Studies also suggest that culturally relevant media deliver greater returns on investment for advertisers than white general-market advertising (Cunningham 1999). For example, in a study on Asian audiences, Forehand & Deshpande (2001) found that Asian participants exposed to ethnic-specific media responded more favorably to same-ethnicity spokespeople and advertising than they did to mainstream advertising and spokespeople.
This is also true for Hispanics, who not only prefer Spanish-language to English language media but also respond more favorably to Spanish-language ads than English language ads, regardless of the medium (Chan 2002). Numerous studies have concluded that Spanish-language media validate Hispanic consumers’ cultural heritage and, therefore, are attributed with greater source credibility (Lee et al. 2004). Similarly, blacks are more likely to trust ads and editorial content in black media than they are to trust mainstream media, leading them to be more attracted to and positively affected by black media than mainstream media (Appiah 2002).
Theoretical Framework Guiding Responses To Ethnic Media
The communication literature related to culturally relevant media has inadequately addressed the psychological mechanisms at work when ethnic minorities encounter media and messages targeted to them. In other words, why do ethnic media do a better job persuading ethnic minorities? Identification theory and distinctiveness theory are particularly relevant in addressing this question.
The persuasion literature has indicated that source–recipient similarity has shown that audiences are more likely to be influenced by a message if they perceive it as coming from a source similar, rather than dissimilar, to themselves (Brock 1965). Individuals are more influenced by media content when they identify with media characters, symbols, and values and perceive themselves to be similar to those characters, symbols, and values.
Identification theory (Kelman 1961) states that individuals automatically assess their level of similarity with a source during an interaction and make similarity judgments. This process drives individuals to choose a source based on perceived similarities between themselves and the source (Kelman 1961). It follows that culturally similar source cues that are inherently embedded in ethnic media would be particularly salient cues that lead ethnic minority audiences to not only identify with targeted media and their content but also favorably respond to targeted media and their content.
This notion is supported by distinctiveness theory, which states that a person’s own distinctive traits (e.g., black, red-headed) will be more salient to him or her than more prevalent traits (e.g., white, brunette) possessed by other people in his or her environment (McGuire et al. 1978). The theory predicts that ethnicity will be more salient for people whose ethnic group is part of a numeric minority in a social environment than it will be for members of an ethnic majority in a particular social environment. Grier & Brumbaugh (1999) argue that, unlike whites, ethnic minorities appreciate the acknowledgment associated with being the target of media. They also state that ethnic minorities are more likely to use targeting cues based on their ethnically distinctive trait in attending and evaluating media than white majority members are to use targeting cues based on their non-distinctive trait.
Although the source’s ethnicity does not seem to matter to ethnic majority members, racially concerned persons like ethnic minorities may react adversely to media sources that feature ethnic group members unlike their own. Although ethnic minorities do attend to some general market media, they often ignore mainstream media messages that are perceived to be targeted to primarily white audiences (Rossman 1994). Appiah (2002) concluded that because ethnic minority members do not identify with many white sources they often find mainstream media personally irrelevant, displaying a conscious form of dis-identification that causes them to tune out to white media and characters.
Ethnic And Mainstream Media Selection As A Function Of Ethnic Identity
While a low proportion of ethnic minorities attend to mainstream media compared to ethnic media (Fannin 1989), mainstream media should not be ignored as a potential method for reaching and persuading ethnic minorities. In fact, an integrated approach that combines both general market and culturally relevant media may be the best strategy. For example, blacks often choose between general media networks or those tailored more narrowly to black audiences (La Ferle & Lee 2005). Like blacks, Hispanics also enjoy both Spanish-language media and mainstream media, but their preferences vary based on length of time in the US, language ability (La Ferle & Lee 2005), and in particular ethnic identity (Donthu & Cherian 1992).
Although a person’s ethnicity is a significant predictor of their response to targeted media and characters, ethnic identity seems to be a more effective variable in explaining minority members’ responses to media (Appiah 2004a). That is, individuals’ feelings toward culturally relevant media and characters depend largely on their degree of identification with their own ethnic group. Studies demonstrate that minorities with strong ethnic identification perceive themselves as more similar to, and identify more strongly with, ethnic media and characters, and express greater liking for ethnic media and characters than do those minorities with weak ethnic identities (Appiah 2004a, 2004b). For example, strong Hispanic identifiers show more ethnic pride, greater use of Spanish-language media, and greater preference for ethnically advertised products than weak Hispanic identifiers (Donthu & Cherian 1992). Research also shows that minorities with weak ethnic identities typically respond either indifferently or more favorably to white media and models vis-à-vis targeted media and models (Appiah 2004a; Green 1999).
White Audiences’ Responses To Ethnic Media
The positive effects of culturally relevant media are not limited to minorities. There is a growing body of work that has investigated how white audiences respond to ethnic-specific media and characters (e.g., Grier et al. 2006). Studies clearly show that these media and characters have succeeded in attracting and persuading mainstream audiences. In fact, in some cases ethnic media have been more effective than mainstream media in connecting to and persuading white audiences. For example, Appiah (2004b) found that white respondents were more likely to believe they were the target audience of black character ads than white character ads, and rated black character ads more favorably than white character ads. White respondents’ more favorable responses to culturally relevant media and characters have been explained, in part, by the term cultural voyeurism (Appiah 2004b).
Cultural voyeurism is conceptualized as the process by which a viewer seeks knowledge about and gratification from ethnic minority characters by viewing them using a specific medium (Appiah 2004b). This notion implies that white audiences may seek, observe, and emulate ethnic minority characters in ads, in music, and on television to gain general information about their dress, music, and vernacular primarily because these characters are perceived to possess certain socially desirable traits. For example, because black people often set the trends in many areas like clothing, language, music, and dance, which not only dominate “U.S. youth culture but the entire global youth market” (Rossman 1994, 140), white audiences may find black media and characters particularly appealing. As a result of cultural voyeurism, some white audiences, particularly white youth, may “identify more with Black characters than White characters on dimensions such as product use, social activities, sports, fashion, and music. For White adolescents, the desire to be cool and hip may override the importance of cultural and racial similarity” (Appiah 2004b).
Today, campaign and media planners should be more familiar with cultural values and lifestyles of ethnic minorities, and should have greater access to a wealth of research on these audiences that will enable them to more effectively target minority groups using culturally relevant media and messages (Rossman 1994). By not using ethnic media, campaign and media planners forgo valuable opportunities to effectively communicate with and persuade ethnic minorities, thereby losing out on a huge market and market opportunity.
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