I didn’t find the ad racist, but I will admit that it did promote a single stereotype about the Jamaican culture, albeit a positive one. I normally really don’t like stereotypes, positive or negative, but I concluded that if Jamaicans didn’t have a problem with the ad, then neither should I.
However, today I read about a study (linked here) that has me reconsidering my opinion. It got me thinking more about positive stereotypes and the negative consequences they may have on our perception of the world. I never really considered about how harmful they could be, but this study suggests that positive stereotypes may be even more damaging than obvious negative stereotypes.
While negative stereotypes are pretty easy to recognize and dismiss, “positive” stereotypes tend to fall into a grey area that people are more willing to believe. For example, many accept without question the idea that women are inherently more nurturing than men, as well as the stereotype that Asian people are naturally more intelligent than people of other races. These ideas don't immediately register as harmful, since they seem to flatter the groups they characterize.
In the study, researchers showed participants one of three fake scientific articles presenting “evidence” for prevalent stereotypes about African-Americans. The first article argued that black people are more athletically inclined (positive stereotype), the second showed that they more prone to violence (negative stereotype), and the third showed that they are less intelligent (negative stereotype) than people of other races.
Naturally, participants were more likely to believe the stereotypes after being exposed to the made-up data. But what came as a shock was that exposure to the positive stereotype ("athletically inclined") seemed to lead to stronger negative beliefs about black people than did exposure to the negative stereotypes ("unintelligent” and “prone to violence").
Participants who read the article showing greater athletic propensity among black people were far more likely than participants in the other two groups to accept the evidence they read as fact. People in this group were also more likely to believe that the differences between blacks and whites were biological in nature, rather than socially learned.
At the end of the study, participants were shown pictures of people and asked to estimate the likelihood that each person might cheat or commit a crime. Of the three groups, the participants who had been exposed to the “positive” stereotype estimated the highest probability that black people would break the law. That is, people who read that African-Americans are more athletic were more likely to distrust black people than were the participants in the groups that read cases for explicitly negative attributes.
The researchers concluded that positive stereotypes "may be uniquely capable of reinforcing cultural stereotypes and beliefs that people explicitly eschew as racist and harmful."
I think this is definitely something to keep in mind, especially when coming up with ads that are going reach a huge audience. I wonder if the ad execs behind the "Get Happy" ad still would have gone through with it if they had read about this study.