The Use of Rap Music in Children's Advertising

M. Elizabeth Blair, Ohio University
Mark N. Hatala, Ohio University
[ to cite ]:
M. Elizabeth Blair and Mark N. Hatala (1992) ,"The Use of Rap Music in Children's Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 719-724.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 719-724


M. Elizabeth Blair, Ohio University

Mark N. Hatala, Ohio University

Rap music, with its boastful rhymes and synthesizer-created claps and pops, has moved out of the ghetto and into the mainstream of popular culture. In rap music, African-Americans have found a powerful expression of their culture. Rap's rhythmic chants and hip style fit the image of products like sneakers and soft drinks. Since children and teens are the major consumers of rap music, it is only logical that rap should be used to promote products to these age groups. The purpose of this paper is to investigate and observe how a social statement about life of oppressed youth in the ghettos becomes so acceptable to the mass culture that it is used by many white advertisers to sell products.


Music in advertising is being studied by marketing scholars in an increasingly diverse number of ways. Initially, there was an emphasis on the measurement of aesthetic qualities of the music (Holbrook and Huber 1979; Holbrook and Bertges 1981). In these studies a number of semantic differential items were factor analyzed and the factors were given names that corresponded with certain qualities of the piece of music (e.g. activity, coolness, heaviness, and sadness). Several years later, Gorn (1982) stimulated interest in the use of music in the background of advertisements. This study provided evidence that preferences for products could be classically conditioned through the use of music. Bruner (1990) recently reviewed the diversity of ways in which music has been studied by marketing scholars and, like the Holbrook studies cited above, emphasizes the decomposition of the music into components such as time (includes rhythm and tempo), pitch and texture. A new rhetorical approach to the study of music in advertising was introduced by Scott (1990). This article criticizes previous music-in-advertising research for ignoring the cognitive involvement of the listener. It is emphasized that music can be informative or affective, and should not be separated from its social context and meanings that are culturally shared. Culturally-shared meanings in music have been largely ignored in previous studies and the current research is one of the first to examine advertising music from an anthropological/ sociological perspective.

Rap music, with its boastful rhymes and synthesizer-created claps and pops, has moved out of the ghetto and into the mainstream of popular culture. In rap music, African-Americans have found a powerful expression of their culture. Some rap artists have attempted to use this force to bring about social change, for example, by speaking out about black-on-black violence. Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola and the British Knights athletic footwear company have all signed popular rap artists to promote their products. Rap's rhythmic chants and hip style fit the image of products like sneakers and soft drinks, especially with young consumers. Because children and teens are the major consumers of rap music, it is only logical that rap should be used to promote products to these age groups. Advertisers believe that rap music facilitates memorization of the product information and creates excitement (Barber 1987). Rap music also allows more lyrics per 30 seconds than any other form of music (Winters 1990).

Many black rappers are concerned that as rap music moves into the mainstream, they will not be given the appropriate credit and compensation. In his introduction to The Rap Attack (Toop, 1984), Tony Van Der Meer states the problem with the commercialization of rap music:

There is nothing wrong with one community learning from the cultural forms produced by another, if it respects their specific shapes and meanings. There is something horribly wrong with a dominant community repeatedly co-opting the cultural forms of oppressed communities, stripping them of vitality and form-the heritage of their creators- and then popularizing them. The result is bleached pepsi culture masquerading as the real thing. This is what threatens to dilute the real feeling and attitude of hip hop, preventing its genuine forms the freedom to fully develop. The expression of Black people is transformed when it is re-packaged without any evidence remaining of the Black historical experience.

In the 1950's and early 1960's producers were interested in promoting white artists, such as Elvis Presley, to perform rock and roll music which had been previously recorded by black artists. The white performer was instrumental in promoting acceptance of a musical style among mainstream audiences. According to Peterson and Berger (1975) black rhythm and blues performers were most often the victims of the "cover tactic", where major companies would quickly record and market a version of a fast-selling song recorded by a smaller independent company. The development and acceptance of rock-and-roll was in many ways similar to the development of rap in the late 1980's and the development of jazz in the 1920's. All of these movements began in the black community. Both rap and rock-and-roll used the language of that era's youth to express the conflicts in their lives. Some of the first rap concerts, like some the first rock-and-roll concerts, were plagued by riots, leading people to believe that this new music was corrupting today's youth. These public reactions parallel the moralistic reaction against jazz in the 1920's. According to Peterson and Berger (1975), this controversy indicates that the music was viewed as important and radically different from the music that preceded it.

How does a subcultural phenomenon such as rap become integrated into the mainstream of mass culture? The purpose of this paper is to investigate and observe how a social statement about life of oppressed youth in the ghettos becomes so acceptable to the mass culture that it is used by many white advertisers to sell products. Children's advertising is examined as a vehicle of mass culture, in order to observe how intensively rap music has penetrated the mainstream of society and how blacks are represented in ads using rap.


Gottdiener (1985) proposed a model of mass culture which is inspired by Marxian hegemony theory, but is at the same time critical of that theory. He suggests a semiotic approach for explaining the influence of various subcultures, particularly youth subcultures associated with certain musical styles, on the mass culture. The concept of hegemony means the way in which an entire ideological complex of beliefs, values and attitudes that function for the sustenance of the ruling class comes to dominate every aspect of society. This model assumes that social groups of all kinds, including powerful, as well as less-powerful groups, are understood to be the bearers of meaning. "Mass" culture is made up of various individual subcultures, which vary in the extent to which they interact with the dominant ideology in society. Before there is a "mass" culture there must be "culture", meaning the conceptual forms and accumulated knowledge by which social groups organize everyday experience. The "mass" culture develops as a result of dynamic meaning creation from groups which may or may not be closely allied with the dominant ideology (Gottdiener, 1985).

Gottdiener visualized the production and control of ideological meanings as operating in three separate stages. In the first stage, producers produce objects for their exchange value, whereas purchasers of those objects desire them for their use value. The link between the producers and users occurs when producers communicate an image for the product, usually through advertising. Even though advertisers have been accused of controlling the consciousness of the purchaser, most advertisers would testify that their efforts to control consumers are often unsuccessful. Successful transfunctionalization of goods from exchange value to desirable use value status has been achieved by several large sporting goods companies. The manufacturers of Reebok, Puma, Nike and Adidas sneakers are making huge profits because their shoes have become accepted not only as the most technologically advanced, but as stylish and prestigious. These manufacturers did not intentionally market these products to appeal the hip hop (rap) subculture, but their products were subsequently adopted by this group, becoming part of its identifiable look.

In the second stage, users modify objects of mass consumption in order to express certain cultural symbols, or in connection with specific group practices or for use in subcultural activities. This is when culture is actually created by the users of the object. The primary use value of the object is transformed, so that the object becomes a sign of belonging to a subculture. In some cases, the commodity may become so personalized that it is no longer effective in its primary function. An example is when a vehicle is modified by a subculture to achieve a particular look, resulting in the vehicle becoming impractical as a daily means of transportation. In rap music, this process occurred when D.J.'s took old recordings from a number of artists ranging from James Brown to The Rolling Stones and repeated the same few bars during the drum break of the song, extending the break into a new instrumental composition. D.J.'s teamed up with MCs (rappers) who provided the show, creating spoken rhymes over the beats. A style of dress developed in which sneakers became high fashion (Toop 1984).

During the third stage, the producers of mass culture decide to capitalize on these subcultural trends. The transfunctionalized objects produced by the subculture becomes the raw material for cultural production by the mass culture industries. During this process, subcultural meanings are changed by mass producers (such as advertisers) into more marketable, less radical meanings. This third stage is extremely important to the process of ideological control. The first and third stages of this semiotic model together constitute a powerful social practice by which the user/object relation is controlled in order to reproduce the social relations necessary for capitalist production. It is evident that big business is making big money from the impact and influence of the rap culture. Major publishers are publishing books illustrating the techniques of "popping", "moonwalking", "spinning" and other breakdancing moves. Sections of these books also inform the reader how to "dress like a breakdancer" and how to "talk like a breaker" (Toop 1984). Gottdiener concludes that theorists advocating ideological domination fail to appreciate the importance of the relative autonomy of subcultural life. It is true that the consumption habits of individuals are so manipulated by the mass culture industries as to transform the production of meaning by subcultures into a managed market purchase. But this does not always happen because consciousness itself cannot be controlled. Fortunately, there will always be groups who desire to distinguish themselves from the mainstream and produce meanings for cultural objects that are independent of the logic of exchange value and dominant cultural sensibilities. Interestingly, these two sources of cultural production are dependent on each other.

The Development Of Rap

Rap music originated in the Southeast Bronx of New York City, when some street gangs decided to put their energies into more creative pursuits. Rap started as a verbal competition and was related to the Afro-American tradition of word battles such as "the dozens." Rap developed in the Bronx as part of the hip hop subculture, along with breakdancing and graffiti art. Hip hop parties (known as "house parties") usually included a show put on by a D.J., rappers, dancers, and graffiti artists who provided the decor. The first rap music was happy, party music and often involved nonsensical bragging between males. During this time, there was also competition among D.J.'s to develop the most creative sampling of records. Old "Monkees" tunes, T.V. themes (such as Gilligan's Island) as well as Funk and Rhythm-and-Blues classics were all borrowed and sampled in unusual ways. Often the original tune was unidentifiable because D.J.s would alternate between two different turntables, repeating the drum sequence from each record a number of times. As predicted by the model of mass culture, described above, the hip hop subculture borrowed some musical products from the popular culture, and "personalized" them to be distinctive to their own group's activities.

Although they were not prominent in the initial development of rap, the introduction of rap into a national audience was accomplished by a three-man group known as Run-DMC. Their remake of the song "Walk This Way", originally a hit for the white rock group Aerosmith, sold 3.3 million copies, and demonstrated to artists and producers that rap was not just a passing phase (McKinney 1989). Rap has moved off the East coast and prominent rappers are popping up all over the country. Though originally a male phenomenon, many prominent female rappers are now expressing their unique points of view (DiPrima 1990). Vanilla Ice is the name of a white man who has become a hit rap artist. Rap has diversified considerably and much of the recent rap music could be described as a crossover between rap and some other style, such as pop, funk or R&B. The most important development in recent rap music is that it has become more political, and serious intelligent messages about life in urban black neighborhoods have replaced the emphasis on nonsensical, party-type lyrics (Adler, Foote, and Sawhill 1990).


A recent article in Marketing News (Schlossberg 1991) stated that advertisers often miss the mark with black consumers and are sometimes insulting. In this article, a black ad agency owner, a black human resources consultant and a black marketing professor expressed their views on the representation of blacks in advertising. They said that "many corporate management organizations, especially those that are predominantly white males, hold stereotypes which prevent them from seeing the market as it truly is and communicating to it properly." Contributing to this problem is the fact that marketers must try to appeal "to the growing black market without alienating the dominant white market" (Bush, Hair, & Solomon 1979). Historically, some researchers feared that using African-Americans in advertising, whether exclusively or in "integrated" commercials with whites, would create a "white backlash" among extremely prejudiced whites resulting in a negative sales response (Cagely & Cardozo 1970). Subsequent research has dispelled this fear, with research showing that white and black consumers do not differ in attitude or purchase behavior when exposed to black, white or integrated promotional stimuli (Solomon, Bush, & Hair 1979).

In the past, evidence did indicate that blacks were underrepresented in the media, and when presented, were often shown in sterotypical roles such as "Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima" (Colfax and Steinberg 1972; Kassarjian, 1969). Blacks were infrequently seen on television throughout the 1950's, except in the sort of negative sterotypes portrayed on the Amos 'n' Andy show, which was eventually cancelled in 1964 due to pressure from the Civil Rights movement (Northcott, Seggar, & Hinton, 1975; Dominick & Greenberg, 1970). In 1965, Bill Cosby was the first black actor to really break into prime time television with his co-starring role in "I Spy", for which he eventually received three Emmy awards (Dominick & Greenberg, 1970). By the mid-1970's, blacks were more prevalent on television and there were even a few all-Black or "segregated" shows such as Good Times, That's My Momma, and Sanford and Son (Banks, 1977). Although blacks also appeared in "integrated" television shows such as The Rookies and Mannix, they didn't usually play the part of a major character. Black characters tended to be clustered in only a few television programs (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1982),and appeared in programming and commercials only about 9% of the time (Weigel, Loomis, & Soja, 1980). It was found that, even though 67% of the American work-force was employed in blue-collar or service industry jobs, only 10% of all television characters were, and these characters were likely to be black (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1982; Pearl, Lazar & Bouthilet, 1982). This was especially true of black characters on "segregated" television programs; blacks on "integrated" television programs tended to be better assimilated into white society and held higher status jobs than their less assimilated bretheren (Banks, 1977). Content analysis studies have shown that since the mid-1980's, blacks have been increasingly shown in culturally assimilated television shows, indicating a change from "low-income all-black settings to more upscale middle-class ones" (Matabane, 1988, p.30). With the success of shows such at The Cosby Show, Amen, and A Different World, this trend is likely to continue.

If blacks have been underrepresented on television shows, they have been seen even less frequently in television advertising. For example, in 1964, African-Americans were given .65% of the speaking roles in commercials and 1.39% of the nonspeaking roles (Kassarjian, 1969). By 1967, only 2.3% of all television commercials used any Blacks, Orientals, Puerto Ricans, or Native Americans (Dominick & Greenberg, 1970). When actually used in a commercial, African-Americans were typically shown in a background role with a large number of other people. For example, in 1967 the median number of people in an advertisement in which a black appeared was 10; for advertisements without blacks, the average was 1.6 (Dominick & Greenberg, 1970). O'Kelly and Bloomquist (1976) counted the frequency of blacks and females in children's programming, adult programming and news programming. The frequencies of blacks and females in the advertisements were compared with frequencies during the programming that contained them. It was found that non-whites represented 1.6% of the characters in children's programming and only 3.8% of the characters in the commerials. This significantly under-represents the percentage of blacks in the population of the U.S. (about 12%). More recently, however, this is changing and many companies have recognized the importance of the ethnic market. The black professionals mentioned above stated that Coca-cola and McDonald's are particularly sensitive to the heterogeneity that exists within the black subculture (Schlosberg 1991). Advertisers must recognize that using rap music may not be appropriate for appealing to all blacks, and may be especially inappropriate for upscale blacks who associate rap music with "hanging out" on the street corners.


The objective of the methodology is to examine the pervasiveness of rap music in children's advertising and to observe the hegemonic process. Because the methodology is largely exploratory, it is difficult to predict in what ways the hegemonic process will manifest itself, it at all. This study is preliminary, in that it does not look at evidence over time, only advertisements appearing within one month's time are examined. Content analysis (Kassarjian 1977) is used to examine how frequently rap occurs and to record the types of products and types of characters by race and sex. It is expected that blacks will appear more frequently in ads that use rap than in other types of ads. It is also possible that blacks will appear in sterotypical ways, because their subculture is not likely to be understood by advertisers. Advertisers are expected to present rap in ways that they believe to be highly acceptable to the mainstream audience.

The sample of ads came from Saturday morning programming (8 am to 11 am) on each of the three major networks. The programming and ads were videotaped on three consecutive Saturdays in October 1990. All advertising that occurred during these programming hours were included in the content analysis, except for one half-hour show on NBC. The NBC videotape contained one show called "Inside the NBA", which was a preview of Saturday afternoon basketball games. Since it was not targeted toward children, and the advertising differed dramatically from the typical children's ads, the advertising from this show was eliminated from analysis and the advertising from 11am to 11:30am was substituted.

Each commercial was identified by the product name, network and number in commercial sequence. People or characters in the ads were coded as white only; black only; black and white; white and other; white, black, and other; or doesn't apply. Characters were counted as black if they appeared to the judges to be at least partly of African-American heritage. Asian and oriental characters were the most commonly occurring characters to be identified as "other". The sex of the people or characters was identified as males only, females only, both or doesn't apply. Products were classified by gender orientation (boy, girl or both) and type of product. If rap music was used, the rapper was identified by sex, race and type of character (e.g. real human vs. cartoon). Two judges were used to code the advertisements. One of the judges is the first author and the second judge is a friend and business person who was paid, and was not involved in the writing of the paper or development of the coding scheme.


There were a total of 224 advertisements in the sample, including commercials that were repeated. Commercials appearing only once made up 58% of the sample, while repeated commercials made up the remaining 42%. The subsequent analysis is based only on ads that are unique to the sample. In other words, an ad that appeared more than once, whether between networks or within the same network, was counted only one time. There were 130 advertisements which fit this description.

The interjudge reliability was 88% and, in the case of a discrepancy, the judgement made by the first author is reported here. Eleven commercials were judged by the first author to contain rap music. The second judge was not as strict in his definition of rap music, but was in agreement with the first author that these particular eleven commericals contained rap. To be considered rap music the words had to be spoken in rhythm and not sung to a melody. Rap music was usually accompanied by typical rap behavior such as; wearing sneakers, baseball caps and work-out suits, speaking into microphones and break-dancing.

Upon examining the race of the characters in the ads, it was found that a majority of the advertisements showed white people only (55%), and an additional three percent of the ads were classified as having characters that were white and other (not black). Three advertisements (3%) showed black people only. Twenty-nine percent of the ads showed whites, blacks and at least one person classified as "other". The remaining eight percent of the ads contained characters that were not human and could not be characterized by race (e.g. a rapping Teddy Bear).

Females were represented almost equally with males within the set of advertisements. Twenty-five percent of the ads contained males only, eighteen percent contained females only and all except three of the remaining ads contained people of both sexes. Once again, these three ads did not contain any characters which could be classified by sex (e.g. cartoon honey bee). Most of the products in the ads were directed toward children of both genders (69%), while twenty-three of the ads (18%) were aimed at females and seventeen ads (13%) were aimed at males.

In the original sample of 224 ads (including repeats), rap music was used in twenty-four of the ads, which is ten percent of the sample. In the subset containing only unique ads, eleven ads used rap music, which is nine percent of the subset. Interestingly, the rappers used by the advertisers were equally divided between blacks and whites. Five ads used a white rapper, five used a black rapper and one used animated characters that could not be classified by race. The rappers were male in nine ads, female in two ads. Both ads using female rappers were promoting toys in the "Barbie doll" line (Barbie Trading Cards and Cool tops Skipper doll). These rappers were considered to be white because all of the girls appearing in the ads were white, even though the little girls who were actually singing did not appear. Four different ads for Lego products were included in the sample of unique rap ads because they were advertising different toys. All of the Lego ads showed the same black boy who mouthed the words to a rap song, while two white boys danced on either side of him and appeared to be "backup singers." The Hot Wheels Racer ad also showed one black boy as the rapper, while the other white boys were shown in the background. The three white male rappers were all cartoon characters. "Barney Rubble" was a rappin' detective talking about Pebbles Cereals. A "Campbell Kid" and a rapping Teddy Bear take turns rapping in an advertisment for Campbell's Teddy Bear soup. "Punchy", who looks like a little Hawaiian tourist, does the rap for Hawaiian Punch. Finally, the most unusual rappers in the sample were the "Chicken McNuggets" from McDonald's, which looked like little brown puppets and were counted as being male because of their voices and baseball caps.

An important observation is that white rappers always appeared in ads with only white people, while the black rappers always appeared with white people, never other blacks. The rule which seems to apply here is to never isolate the "majority". This is consistent with the finding by Dominick and Greenberg (1970) that blacks are typically shown in the larger context with other characters. This rule also seemed to apply to gender representations in children's advertising, assuming that males are a "psychological" majority. In the twenty-one ads that were obviously aimed at boys, males only (usually adult) provided the voiceover. The voiceover was defined as a person who does not appear in the advertisement but does have the last word. In the ads directed toward girls, a female (usually adult) always provided the voiceover. For products aimed at both boys and girls, males usually had the last word. In seventy of these ads, a male provided the voiceover, while females provided the voiceover in only eight advertisements.


The results provide some preliminary evidence that rap music may be undergoing a hegemonic process because of its interpretation by advertisers. They seem to believe that because rap is popular, kids will like any message that is presented in a rhyming way, which is probably true. The advertisements for boys' toys were most true to the original rap style. The Hot Wheels and Legos ads each used a black boy as the rapper and included a little bit of dancing with their singing. Perhaps these advertisers felt that rap music could appear in a more true form with these toys because rap has been traditionally macho. It appeared that the Barbie ads were the least rap-like, with the little girls speaking in unison in a rhythmic way, but certainly avoiding any male symbolism. The fact that the other rappers were white cartoon characters is further indication that rap music is being trivialized in some ways.

There is also evidence which indicates that both blacks and females are more frequently represented in this study than in previous studies. For example, O'Kelly and Bloomquist (1976) examined the frequency of both blacks and females in children's advertising. In their content analysis, every single character was coded according to race and sex. They found that 302 characters were white and 12 characters were nonwhite (only about 4% of the sample). In the present study, both white and black characters are represented in more than 25% of the advertisements. This difference in results is possibly due to a couple of different things. First, in our study we did not count individual characters. It was only noted whether or not at least one black or female person appeared in the commercial. It is likely that these "minorities" were outnumbered by "majority" children. The difference between our results and those of O'Kelly and Bloomquist (1976) may also indicate a greater consciousness on the part of advertisers to represent blacks and females more frequently. It is our opinion that blacks were not shown in particularly insulting or stereotypical roles. Usually, their roles were no different from the white children in the commercials. On one hand it might be argued that the Lego commercials used a "token" black. On the other hand, this boy was is an enviable position as the leader and rapper of the group. It was a role that boys of all races could admire. In conclusion, rap music appears to be moving into the third stage of Gottdiener's (1985) mass culture model, in which a social trend is sanitized by the producers of mass culture. It is in some ways unfortunate that the mass culture industries have the ability to dominate and manipulate the development and diffusion of rap music, because most the of these producers have little understanding about the subculture from which it originated. For most Americans, exposure to the group life of others takes place through the agency of mass culture (Gottdiener 1985). This is the most unfortunate outcome for a subculture in which many young people hoped that rap could be a "way out" for disadvantaged youth and a chance that others might listen to what they have to say.


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