Although the scientific community has frequently criticized the reliability and validity of direct-to-consumer ancestry DNA testing (DTC DNA), sales continue to rise, with an estimated 26 million U.S. American customers to date. This surge speaks to a desire among U.S. consumers to fulfill a symbolic need constructed by these DTC DNA companies. Using constitutive rhetoric as a methodological lens, we unravel the ways Ancestry® constitutes consumers, ideologically and narratively, as genetic carriers of ethnic ancestry. Specifically, we analyze 17 commercials that aired on cable television in the U.S. from 2015 to 2018. We argue that Ancestry® constitutes subjects as objective harbingers of DNA who form the basis of homogenous genetic ethnic communities, which obscures the scientific constraints of DTC DNA and the sociocultural consequences of linking genetics with ancestry. Ultimately, the rhetoric within these commercials paradoxically provides U.S. Americans a resource for uniqueness—to feel differentiated from everyone else, while encouraging them to feel a sense of belonging to some greater collectivity. Ancestry® capitalizes upon the appeal of symbolic ethnicity and perpetuates the idea that ethnicity is unproblematically biological, thus enabling and constraining identification accordingly.
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