The Branding Game
Research delves into use of Native sports mascots
By Deborah Richie
Rows of race bibs from ultra-marathons and bike rides fill one wall of Justin Angle’s office on the third floor of UM’s Gallagher Business Building. The numbers serve as sentimental reminders, each one a personal touchstone for a story of endurance.
For the UM assistant professor, the race numbers convey his proud affiliation with a community of distance runners and cyclists. For someone else, an office wall might display other keepsakes of events or the mascots of favorite sports teams. But what if a sports mascot has the opposite effect of pride on a group of people? Should we ban that mascot? Find a new one? From the recent controversy over the Washington Redskins to the display of the Confederate flag, the subject often is fervently debated.
Until now, disputes over American Indian sports mascots lacked enough empirical evidence to support assumptions that the use of Indian imagery perpetuates stereotypes, Angle says. Are some mascots more pernicious than others? Does it matter how close you live to a professional sports franchise with an Indian mascot?
That lack of data is about to change. Angle’s research on Indian mascots in professional sports and whether they perpetuate stereotypes almost has reached the finish line. The study currently is under advanced review at the Journal of Consumer Psychology. After intensive field and lab studies, the answer points to yes.
“I’m convinced that American Indian mascots are bad,” Angle says, indicating that the new data add weight to the American Psychological Association’s 2005 call for the retirement of all Indian mascots.
Investigating the effect of Indian mascots on the general population represents a first for researchers and one that’s tricky to study. Angle started the project in 2007 as a doctoral student at the University of Washington. In 2012, he joined the faculty of UM’s School of Business Administration.
“I’ve focused my research on how people shape their identity through their brand choices,” he says. “I look at how they learn about brands, how they interpret what brands do and how brands affect attitudes toward people – often outside of their awareness. That led me to the mascot question.”
When it comes to the impact of Indian sports mascots on American Indians, published research has linked exposure to mascots with lower self-esteem in American Indian children. For that reason alone, Angle stresses that he favors retirement of the mascots. Major league sports with Indian mascots may face declining revenues as well, according to recent studies.
But without data on the broader effect of mascots on sports fans or people casually familiar with the professional teams, it’s difficult to know how seriously the mascots might affect societal views toward American Indians.
Applying the patience of an ultra-marathoner, Angle and his colleagues from UM, UW and Washington State University took multiple steps toward finding out. Survey participants ranked 10 Indian mascots (looking at both name and logo together), with the Atlanta Braves coming out as least offensive and the Cleveland Indians as the most. Then, the research team paired two sets of Major League Baseball teams for a field study of the people who live in the vicinity of the teams: the Cleveland Indians versus the Detroit Tigers and the Atlanta Braves versus the Miami Marlins.
The pairing assured similar demographics of cities and a chance to measure the effects of exposure to an Indian mascot versus a non-Indian mascot on people in those areas. To find out, the team used the Implicit Association Test to indirectly assess the degree to which participants associated American Indians with the term warlike. The widely used test measures associations between concepts and attributes.
“It turns out that people in Cleveland have more stereotypical views toward American Indians than people in Detroit,” Angle says. “People in Atlanta do not have any measurable difference from people in Miami, and residents of both these cities have less stereotypical views than Cleveland residents.”
The severity of the mascot (Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians) likely influences people’s stereotype strength, he says. Within the group of people surveyed, Angle also wanted to see if political identity would make a difference. It does.
“We know from other studies that liberals tend to be more malleable in their world views than conservatives,” says Angle. He anticipated that liberals would be more affected by exposure to mascots, and that hypothesis held true.
Currently, Angle and his team are in the finishing stages of the lab portion of the study, asking people questions in controlled settings as a way to substantiate findings from the field. Angle recognizes his work delves into rugged terrain. Just as in one of his 100-mile runs over mountains, the footing is not always sure. However, the journey is important. The work will help steer an important conversation at all levels, from sports fans loyal to their mascots to the billion-dollar corporations that back the teams.
“Not only do the Indian mascots have negative effects on society and consumer welfare, but they might be bad business, too,” he says. Personally, he hopes the project will contribute to the ongoing quest for improving race relations and civil rights.
Angle’s focus on the Indian mascot question arose in part from his doctoral dissertation on people’s attachment to brands, whether a sports team or a favorite product.
“I wanted to find out how people respond when their identity is threatened,” he says.
Angle’s published results might seem surprising at first. One way to motivate hardcore fans of a product or a sports team is not to reward them for their loyalty, he says. Instead, make them feel less secure. By doing that, people want to prove their loyalty, whether it’s by going to more Griz games or stepping up their purchases of a favorite brand.
“The more your association with a brand is challenged, the more you will pursue the brand,” he says.
Angle’s doctoral work offers insights to the mascot question. If people have fierce attachments to mascots, the threat of changing them could trigger a reaction to dig their heels in and show even greater loyalty. However, by understanding that motivation, Angle believes strategies can be developed to help people accept a change. The key is to prevent people from feeling like their loyalty is being challenged.
As Angle continues his study of identity and brands, he hopes to continue on the course he’s headed with Indian mascots. He believes there’s plenty of new terrain to cover on subjects where his research can contribute to improving people’s quality of life.
When it comes to terrain, Angle couldn’t be happier with UM’s proximity to challenging running trails. All he has to do is head out the door and up Mount Sentinel’s M Trail and on to the summit. He and his family live next to a trailhead leading into the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. Angle is thrilled that his two young daughters are growing up in Montana with the wilds right out their door.
Whether teaching, researching or running, Angle clearly goes the extra mile, or you might say the ultra miles. On his personal running website, he describes himself as “ultra runner, ultra scholar, ultra dad, ultra husband & ultra thankful for the folks who help make it all possible.”
Piggybacking with established brands doesn’t always work
As a researcher of brands, Angle provides a unique perspective on the psychology of branding. His prowess in the ultra-marathon world has earned him the sponsorship of Patagonia. On a personal level, he identifies with an outdoor company that shares his own values of conservation and environmental stewardship.
In a recently published article in the Journal of Consumer Research, Angle and two colleagues discovered that a marketing strategy for new companies to partner with an established brand is not always advantageous.
“If there is some sort of outcome, such as quality or performance, associated with the partnership, the two component brands will compete for association with the outcome and the new, unknown brand will likely lose,” he explained. However, if a company simply wants to build awareness, the piggybacking strategy usually works.
Just how much do you love the Griz?
So you think you’re a Griz fan. Prove it. Can you name four ways you demonstrate that you are a fan? Pretty easy, right? Now try to list 12 ways you demonstrate that you are a fan. More difficult. Perhaps that difficulty made you feel less secure in your level of fandom. If that’s the case, maybe Angle will be waiting at a Griz gear retailer to see if you show up.