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Picture Yourself

Those of you who know me personally know that in another aspect of my life I write about technology. I get to play around with a fair number of gadgets in order to review them and it’s a very cool job, generally. There are very few times when the ABW in me is activated by something that happens in the course of my tech writing, and when it does I’m often conflicted about where I should best express my concerns. Is the issue best discussed on or on my personal tech blog or even on my work tech blog? This time I’ve opted for ABW not because this issue is particularly anger-making (it’s more annoying), but because I feel like the readers here will discuss it more thoughtfully than those more tech-minded.

A few months back I reviewed a slew of digital picture frames all in a row. I had to set them all up and evaluate whether they made good gifts for grandma and grandpa. All of the frames came with some starter images to show you how the slideshow bit works before you put your images on, which is pretty standard. But as I set each frame up, I started to notice that all of the images that came pre-loaded were of white people. White families, white adults, white kids, white white white1.

Now, I realize that this is not all that different from regular frames (next time you’re in a Target or Wal-Mart or something, go stroll down the frame aisle. If there are pictures of people in them, chances are they are white people) but for some reason this struck me particularly as I was setting up these digital frames. I kept thinking: are there no brown people of any ethnicity available in stock photo bins? Or do they not even think, just choose the first pictures of happy people they see and put them in?

Then again, companies often control every aspect of a product down to the number of water drops on the image of a waterproof phone to ensure it doesn’t seem too waterproof and thus fool customers (yes, this is a real issue that came up once). Hard to believe that the photos pre-loaded on all of these frames weren’t mulled over and specifically chosen by someone.

I was reminded of this again when I posted on my work blog about good family holiday gifts and wanted to mention the frames. I was so sick of only finding images of frames with photos of white people inside that I went and found some brown people and photoshopped them in.

The reason this annoys me yet doesn’t really anger me is that it smacks not of malice or prejudice, but of unconscious privilege and blindness. Do the people who choose the images for the frame ever stop and consider that a Black or Latino or Indian or Native American family might buy the product and might appreciate if the pre-loaded photos maybe looked something like them? It’s a small thing, but would indicate to me that someone at the company was paying attention to the fact that not only white people exist in the world. And since the frame usually comes with 4 – 10 images on it, you can satisfy a whole slew of people by showing families of different races and ethnicities and also just mixed groups of people having fun and being together.

I guess I wish that people were more thoughtful. This is, I’m sure, far too much to ask.

  1. I can’t be sure if there were only white people across the board because I’ve sent some of the units back, but about the third one I paid close attention and only saw white folks. []

14 thoughts on “Picture Yourself”

  1. Emily says:

    The thing that occurs to me is, even beyond the representation issue, wouldn’t it make sense to show pictures of different kinds of people, just to show off how awesomely your digital frame handles the different skin tones? It seems like a selling point to me, to show off how white people don’t look too washed out, but then look! A picture of Black/Hispanic/Indian families and they all look just as sharp and clear! This frame is SO COOL! Or am I way overthinking this?

    1. Mish says:

      You raise a very valid point. And no, you are not over thinking it. Sometimes people tend to overlook products because of the “audience” the company is targeting. If it was showing beautiful people of all races, not only is it more appealing to the masses, but sales may even go up. Make people feel included…make them feel that your products represent people across the board. Making product is one thing; opening your eyes and marketing to all people, of all races is another thing. :)

  2. Godheval says:

    I’m sure you’re right, that plenty of consideration is placed into the choice of photos. It is most likely a business decision to use white photos – as demographically speaking, most of their customers are likely to be white. I wonder how deep it goes, though. Do they consider that simply because:

    A) White people are the majority in the country?
    B) They assume that non-whites are disproportionately poor and thus would not be likely to buy such a novelty?
    C) Focus tests show that non-whites aren’t interested in such things?

    Either way, I share your frustration, as this trend extends into just about every sphere of the American market. I’m often complaining about ethnic representations in video games, myself. Bleh.

  3. Lesley says:

    I work at a photo lab and we sell a bunch of these frames. I’ve never really taken the time to look, but next time I’m at work I’ll check them out and report back. :-D

    What I *DID* notice though, was when I was in the hair care aisle looking for some new dye, and every single box had a white woman on it. I think I counted 2 or 3 that has an asian women. I was like “….Wow.”

  4. Eileen Gunn says:

    In my country, this is also known as a marketing opportunity.

  5. Eileen Gunn says:

    Not to deny that’s it’s annoying, ABW. Just sayin’, especially to any people who, say, work in a photo lab that sells a bunch of those frames. Might be pretty easy to change the pictures….

  6. Jed says:

    I hope you’re right that it’s unconscious; that makes it something that could potentially be fixed fairly easily, by calling attention to it.

    But the argument that I most often hear in other situations where only white people are shown is “People of color will buy stuff that only shows white people, but white people won’t buy stuff that shows people of color.” I have no idea how true that is, but if true, it’s awfully depressing. And regardless of whether it’s really true, if the marketing people believe it’s true then it gets perpetuated. :(

    Anyway, regardless of the underlying causes, I’m glad you’re calling attention to the problem.

  7. Robert Hutchinson says:

    My first thought was that it was reflecting “white as default” in some combination of two ways. 1) The photo selectors are just selecting the photos that they consider “average”. 2) The photo selectors are deliberately selecting photos that they believe the buying public, both white and brown, will see as “average”.

    But point #2 doesn’t seem to make as much sense if these are photos that the buyer never even gets to see until after they’ve already bought the frame. So, I wonder if these slideshows are actually geared more towards being seen as part of a sample product that a store is displaying?

  8. Eileen Gunn says:

    Jed, 20 or 30 years ago, that’s the answer you’d get. But I suspect the problem here is that the amount of marketing savvy that goes into the sample photos on a cheap electronic household toy is pretty limited.

    Either (1) yes, it’s a bunch of white folks and they’re just not thinking at all, or (2) the device was made somewhere other than the US for the US market, and they’re thinking (rather vaguely) that American=white.

    (2) Seems more likely to me.

    1. J. Andrews says:

      I had a similar thought. But maybe it’s even more than the thought that American = white, but that Western world = white. Americans, Canadians, Brits, Europeans, etc.

      I’d be interested to hear what photos come preloaded on a frame bought in Japan.

  9. Laura says:

    I do work at a Wal-Mart and sometimes do work in the furniture department where I handle photoframes. I remember the most popular picture for one brand of frames was that of a family; I couldn’t tell the family’s ethicity, they could have been black or hispanic or white or bi-racial. When I go into work on Friday I’ll take a better look at the frames.

  10. tom says:

    It might seem equally as crass no matter what the photos contained – nowadays when you see a deliberate “mix” or ethnicities on TV commercials, for example, you know that each individual was selected to represent an acceptable type for that product or that corporate image. As demographics shift more and more over the next generation, expect chsnge, but don’t expect marketing tigers to change their stripes! I suppose it’s better to be included in the sample than excluded, but it’s still just selling soap by any means necessary.

  11. Eileen Gunn says:

    Tom, I can relate to your POV, but the fact is that marketing is a sea that we all swim in. What pollutes it pollutes all our lives. It is important — to the community — that marketing materials reflect all the people in it. It’s not just that it oppressive to the people who are excluded, it’s harmful to the people who are represented as well, as they are being presented with a false view of their world, of who’s important in it, of who deserves the product being marketed.

    As a marketing person with a very long history, I have dealt, in the distant past, with clients who say “women don’t buy our products” and “black people don’t buy our products.” It used to be that the best way to deal with these clients was simply not to use pictures of people in the promotional materials: conservative white clients would notice and prevent you from using women and people of color in the ads, but they didn’t keep you from doing what they didn’t notice you were doing. That changed (in my industry) in the 1980s, fortunately. For my company, it changed simply because I felt (and my boss agreed) that we could argue, truthfully, that it was a global company and the advertising needed to reflect that. I had found an argument that worked.

    That’s kind of a long way of saying it doesn’t matter why people do the right thing. It’s important that it gets done.

  12. emma says:

    what follows isn’t a justification but an explanation of what i think is going through their heads. i agree with you that this is probably a considered aspect of the product, but probably not malice per se. i bet it is a matter of the company wanting as little attention as possible to be paid to the pictures so that people are able to project the image of their own family into it. and so the most socially visible demographic is defaulted too. its not that they don’t want people of all colors to buy their product, but they think that POCs are already used to seeing white ppl everywhere and probably won’t single out their company for it. it is the same way as if on the news they were going to show an image of human body to explain a medial phenomon or something . . . it will always be male unless it is a female specific issue. women are so used to being ignored they probably won’t notice. men won’t notice either but both would notice it was a female body. men, who are used to being catered too might then experience an inability to relate to the image. its like one time somebody told audrey that she shouldn’t have revealed to her readers that she is female because it makes her comic ‘harder to relate to.’ but women are just automatically expected to be able to relate to men. sorry to relate everything to feminism, its just by easiest touchstone. but i think the issue is the same. marketers know that in catering too those already catered too, people will just keep acting like they do without resistance or unprediatability.

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