Ethnic brand imagery activates stereotypes—in liberals

Mark Forehand
Mark Forehand

Cleveland Indians. Atlanta Braves. Washington Redskins.

The names and mascots of these longstanding professional sports franchises are considered politically incorrect at best and, at worst, damaging examples of institutional racism against the Native American peoples whose heritage they appropriate.

But are they actually doing harm?

A new study from the University of Washington Foster School of Business finds evidence that Native American sports imagery activates common ethnic stereotypes—though primarily among liberals, whose attitudes tend to be more malleable than those of conservatives.

“Our findings suggest that everyday encounters with ethnic brand imagery can strengthen consumers’ implicit stereotypes, though these effects depend on the political identity of the perceiver,” says co-author Mark Forehand, a professor of marketing and the Pigott Family Professor in Business Administration at the Foster School. “The net effect is that such imagery can carry detrimental societal consequences.”

Inappropriate appropriation?

The wide world of American sports has a long tradition of team nicknames and mascots derived from indigenous tribes.

Of the 42,000 teams—from high school to the pros—identified by the organization MascotDB, more than 2,100 use Native American references in their nicknames. Some co-opt proper tribal names such as Seminoles, Cherokees and Utes. Others use more general Native American references that run the gamut from noble (Braves, Chiefs, Warriors) to pejorative (Redskins, Raiders, Savages).

Since the 1940s many Native American groups, led by the National Congress of American Indians, have protested this appropriation of ancient cultures as not only offensive but also socially damaging to their modern descendants. Many non-native organizations such as the NAACP and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights have subsequently supported this stance.

In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the immediate retirement of Native American symbols, names and images used by sports teams. The APA argued that such imagery diminishes the self-esteem of Native American people, especially children, and creates a hostile environment by reinforcing stereotypes in mainstream populations.

Forehand says that some harmful effects of Native American sports imagery on Native Americans have been well documented by decades of social science research. But the effect of these symbols on the attitudes and behaviors of non-native people had yet to be examined.

“The claim that Native American nicknames and mascots perpetuate stereotypes in the broader population was an assumption that was not backed up by any evidence,” he says.

Implicit associations

He set out to do just that with co-authors (and former Foster doctoral students) Justin Angle, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Montana; Sokiente Dagago-Jack, an assistant professor of marketing at Boston College; and Andrew Perkins, an associate professor of marketing at Washington State University.

In laboratory and field experiments, the research team adapted the Implicit Association Test, developed by UW psychologist Anthony Greenwald and others, to measure the strength of people’s implicit associations between mascot imagery and common Native American stereotypes.

In the first study, participants viewed one of two generic sports logos: a realistic drawing of a Native American man in traditional headdress or an illustration of a kangaroo. Immediately after, the participants were asked to categorize images of Native American and European American faces with a series of warlike words such as “savage,” “barbaric” and “vicious.” Participants also reported their explicit opinions of Native Americans (to establish a personal stereotype baseline), and provided basic biographical information as well as their political identity.

The researchers found that exposure to the Native American sports logo (versus the kangaroo) resulted in stronger associations between Native Americans and warlike words—but only in the participants who described themselves as liberals.

Building off this finding, the researchers also investigated whether such exposures could influence more “positive” stereotypes. In a second study, participants viewed the same sports logos, but the logos were paired with the slogan “We are Noble, We are Peaceful, We Compete with Honor!” Participants were then asked to categorize the faces with terms representing nobility, such as “honorable,” “dignity” and “grace.”

Again, the team found that exposure to the Native American sports logo (versus the kangaroo) increased associations—this time to nobility—but only in the self-described liberal participants.

A third study tested the effect of exposure to Native American sports imagery in a real-world setting. Forehand and his colleagues measured the implicit attitudes of residents in two pairs of American cities that are home to Major League Baseball teams: Cleveland (Indians) and Detroit (Tigers); Atlanta (Braves) and Tampa (Marlins). The idea was to see whether negative Native American images such as the Cleveland Indians’ offensively cartoonish mascot “Chief Wahoo” would activate stronger stereotyping among a city’s residents than would the more positive imagery of the Atlanta’s Braves’ iconic tomahawk.

Focusing on liberals with some affiliation to these sports teams, the researchers detected stronger Native American stereotyping among the fans exposed to negative Native American imagery (in Cleveland) than in those exposed to animal mascot imagery (in Detroit). They found little difference in stereotyping between liberal baseball fans exposed to more positive Native American imagery (in Atlanta) and animal mascot imagery (in Tampa).

Why liberals?

Forehand says he’s not surprised that liberals would be more affected by ethnic imagery. He cites a body of research documenting that liberals tend to hold more malleable attitudes than conservatives, who tend to be more committed to a particular world view.

“It’s important to clarify that this project was not focused on assessing the baseline stereotype beliefs of liberals or conservatives, but rather their sensitivity to ethnic imagery,” he says. “Although liberals were more sensitive to both positive and negative stereotype information, we actually found no significant difference between the two populations in their overall stereotype associations with Native Americans.”

Piece of the puzzle

Though Stanford University switched nicknames from Indians to Cardinal in the 1970s, and St. John’s traded Redmen for Red Storm in the 1990s, Native American names, mascots and symbols persist in the American sporting landscape.

Forehand admits that there is much more work to be done to identify and understand societal costs of Native American sports imagery. But he believes this first evidence of an impact on stereotyping in the general populace is significant.

“This is one piece of the puzzle,” he says. “The case for retiring Native American brand imagery can be made independent of our results. But this research lends more empirical credence to the wealth of compelling social commentary condemning its use. Although it is possible for ethnic imagery to activate positive stereotypes with enough supporting communication, our research observes that negative stereotype activation is likely the default response to most exposures.”

Forehand expects that these findings would extend to all manner of ethnic brand imagery, from Chief Wahoo to Chef Boyardee to Aunt Jemima.

“We happened to test the domain of Native American sports imagery,” he says. “But all ethnic imagery and branding potentially create these same effects.”

Activating Stereotypes with Brand Imagery: The Role of Viewer Political Identity” is forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.