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Advertising, Branding & Cultural Stereotypes in Museum Victoria Collections

Fan - Guests Gollywogs Biscuits, Cardboard, circa 1960

Image: Fan - Guests Gollywogs Biscuits, Cardboard, circa 1960

Source: Museum Victoria

The Museum collects, publishes and interprets the Australian material culture of cultural stereotyping to both trace cultural representations of diverse peoples over time, and advocate cultural sensitivity and understanding. There are words and images associated with the artefacts in the collection which may cause offense, but which have both historical and contemporary importance because of the attitudes they represent. The targets of these portrayals have been primarily Indigenous Australians and particular migrant groups, although in some instances the caricatures have been imported from other countries, such as America and the United Kingdom. Advertising, product branding and labelling creates memorable images, taglines, and associations. The use of cultural (and other) stereotypes in this context attempts to elicit amusement, feelings of superiority, and nostalgia through the reduction of cultural identities and historical references to one dimensional caricatures of diverse groups of people. Stereotypes are also prevalent in making a product memorable with a funny or caricatured (often derogatory, and by today's standards offensive) depiction of a certain group.

Packaging for domestic cleaning items in the Museum's collection, such as the soap pads box and floor polish tin, feed off the connotations of slavery, unpaid or cheap labour and the stereotype of the 'lazy' African American or Indigenous Australian. The overtly racist brand name 'Nigger Boy' (also a product name for Australian licorice products from the 1950s and 1960s) is accompanied by the tag line 'It works so hard you work less!'. This seemingly innocuous phrase, when coupled with the image or brand name, encourages consumers to make prejudicial connections between Indigenous Australians and African Americans, and menial labour. Similarly the patronisingly named 'Piccaninny' brand, which specialised in home maintenance products, promotes its product with 'Twice the Shine in Half the Time!'.

Marketing strategies are also utilised to give 'authenticity' and even a touch of the romanticised 'exotic' to products coming from or representing another country. For example the 'coffee and chicory' branded items in the Museum's collection feature turban-wearing, camel-riding male figures and one product is even entitled 'Turban Brand'. Thus cultural 'minorities' are frequently portrayed as being less educated and with exaggerated features; these cartoon-like representations and caricatures were sometimes used as a source of humour, and can be found in the large selection of the Museum's 'Aussie' magazine collection (a periodic publication for Australian World War I servicemen which ran until circa 1929).

Such depictions can even be viewed as an effective mechanism for justifying discriminatory and racist practices. Australian and American 'Picaninny' and 'Minstrel' shows, featuring fancy dress and makeup, present caricatures which validated the marginalisation of those being stereotyped. The figures of fun implicitly promoted a cultural hierarchy, thus trivialising the mistreatment of the groups who were targeted. In addition to this, it has even been argued that an increase in stereotyping in advertisements and branding in the USA and Australia may partly have been in response to the increasing visibility and activism of many cultural groups, including Indigenous Australians. The persistence of black and white minstrel shows and 'blackfacing' in theatre and television productions (even until quite recently) are an example of public opinion changes lagging behind legislator changes; perhaps partly due to the role of mass advertising in perpetuating racial and cultural stereotypes.

In parallel to this creating and perpetuating of cultural stereotypes, particularly in relation to Australian Aboriginal peoples, Australia from the 1950s onwards saw a rapid increase in the 'borrowing' and appropriation of traditional Aboriginal symbols and motifs, in everything from souvenirs to artworks and textile design. Examples of this new design and the assumption of a particular visual Australian identity can be seen in the Museum's collection through such objects as the 1950s Guy Boyd studio vase. Consumption appears to have no boundaries in its pursuit of the market, whether through the belittling of select cultural groups, or the appropriation of cultural elements. There are also examples of those who rejected expressions of racial inequality and the use of cultural stereotypes in material culture. In late nineteenth century Melbourne, E. W. Cole was a great advocate of respect for others regardless of race, class, and ethnicity; he sold souvenirs including plates and medals in his book store, and some of these items are also held in the Museum Victoria collections.

Selected References
Haffenreffer exhibit: 'Thawing the Frozen Indian', Brown University (refer to museum website, 2013)
Davil Pilgrim, curator of Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (refer to museum website, 2013)
Patricia Turner, Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture (New York, 1994)

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