While reference groups consist of role models or people who represent benchmarks for individuals to compare themselves to, stereotypes are typically unfair generalizations of groups cast in a negative light. Both reference groups and stereotypes often originate or are popularized through mass media. Traditionally, they've spread through word of mouth and folklore by people from dominant groups to emphasize perceived weaknesses of minority groups. Comedians play off of stereotypes, for example, often to expose the stupidity they manifest.
A reference group doesn't need to consist of celebrities; it can include teachers, parents, local business leaders, or any other groups that inspire social progress. Formal reference groups comprise clubs and organizations, while informal reference groups can be based on friends and colleagues. Reference groups are studied to analyze knowledge, success, dress codes, and many other facets of lifestyle to establish standards. The main purpose of reference groups is to provide guidance for a subgroup or society in general.
Marketers use reference groups as part of learning their target audiences or other market participants. According to Marketing Professor Lars Perner at USC, the three factors that determine an affiliation with such groups are admiration, friendship with peers, and disassociation. Some people admire politicians or athletes, for example, and look up to them for guidance, while others associate with reference groups who are closer to home. Disassociation characterizes individuals who don't wish to be part of a larger group, such as a political party.
The advent of movies and television unleashed a wave of reference groups and stereotypes on viewers throughout the twentieth century. Until the late 1960s, media typically portrayed men as the breadwinners and dominant forces in society. They also often portrayed women as sex objects and heavily concerned about appearance. It really wasn't until after the Civil Rights Movement that African Americans began to be portrayed as authoritative and intelligent in movies. Native Americans were often treated as villains in old Westerns. These stereotypes about race and gender can be perceived as the norm by children until they become more educated.
Marketers and social analysts have created misleading stereotypes by generalizing that individuals within a generation all think the same way. "Baby Boomers," for example, aren't all hippies, and "Gen Xers" aren't all punks, just like how not all "Millennials" are anti-establishment.
Political parties, religious groups, and lower-class individuals are often targeted by opponents in polarized regions, leading to the formation of new stereotypes. The radio industry targets specific demographics, based on research, that can add to stereotypes in marketing, such as notions that African American audiences only like hip hop or R&B while southern whites only like country music. Overcoming these generalizations can be achieved by analyzing the tastes of individuals rather than assuming that members within subcultures automatically all think the same.