Two years ago, Saatchi & Saatchi put together a hypothetical ad for the Commission for Racial Equality, the gist of which was, “according to advertisers, black people don’t eat, sleep, drink, shave, read, drive or do anything at all”.
While it is true that in the past two years ethnically diverse faces have been more visible in the media, creative departments, it seems, can only justify using them within given contexts.
Asian faces can advertise soft drinks, but only within the setting of a corner shop (Snapple) or a Bollywood film (Oasis). Overtly black references are allowed these days, but only within the arenas of widely acknowledged black achievement such as music (Red Stripe’s reggae rhyming posters) or sport (black athlete used to advertise the British Energy sell-off). And if a character is going to be allowed to be Jewish, she has to make copious jokes at her own expense about her thriftiness (Maureen Lipman’s Eighties’ BT incarnation Beattie).
Last year Homepride Cook-in-Sauces broke new ground with its ads through HHCL & Partners featuring Asians using the sauces, but they had to be given strong regional accents in a deliberately gimmicky twist.
Black, Asian, Chinese or Muslim actors and models are still rarely, if ever, used to advertise cars, alcohol, household cleaning products, perfumes, jewellery or financial services. But Chris Myant, a spokesman for the CRE, thinks the advertising industry has come a long way.
“In the past two or three years there’s been a substantial increase in the number of black faces appearing, less so Asians,” he says. In a separate move the Advertising Standards Authority recently included race in its official remit.
Myant admits that the usage is almost universally stereotypical, but says, “at least they’re not negative stereotypes”.
“Agencies sometimes test out ideas on us, and some of these ideas are appalling, and you wonder how they ever cropped up. Things like Irish accented voiceovers where you are clearly meant to think that the owner of the voice is stupid, Arabs shown to be filthy rich or Afro-Caribbean grandmas being depicted as forgetful and silly,” he adds.
“But we haven’t had a real shocker presented to us for about a year and a half.”
Myant also points out that any poster, broadcast or press ad aiming to represent a cross-section of people (such as the Midland Bank settee ads last year) will these days include ethnic minorities.
But the UK is still a long way from the US where mainstream advertisers use multi-ethnic casts without having to devise special scenarios.
The furore over the Vauxhall Astra baby ad and allegations that it was racist because of a lack of black babies missed the point. It is not racist – it is certainly not the most accurate depiction of British youth. But the use of laboured stereotypes in ads is far more damaging.
Having another token black child in the ad would not have made people from ethnic minorities more likely to buy a Vauxhall. But they may think twice about buying a Ford. Its agency, Ogilvy & Mather, doctored a photograph from a 1991 ad campaign featuring four black people by superimposing white faces for a picture used in a Polish promotional campaign. The strategy had disastrous results when the “enhanced” image was reused in the UK earlier this year. And Ford paid the four “whited out” black workers compensation.
Myant might be satisfied that positive stereotypes are better than negative ones. But they are still stereotypes. It may not be active racism, but in terms of reinforcing limiting concepts of people’s roles in society and excluding a significant sector of the population from a broader media presence, passive racism is just as insidious.