Culture Club

The UK’s black community has revealed it feels shut out by the media. To target ethnic minorities, marketers cannot be squeamish about acknowledging cultural differences, says Matt Barnard

Until he retired, Michael Jordan was one of the richest and most important sports stars in the world. The black US basketball player was estimated by Fortune magazine to have contributed a staggering £6bn to the NBA during his career. In the fields of sport, fashion and entertainment the massive influence of black culture is undisputed. However, the influence of black and other ethnic cultures in the field of marketing is less clear.

Certainly, Jordan along with his British counterparts such as Linford Christie, Ian Wright and Frank Bruno, have little trouble finding themselves sponsorship deals. But some observers say that in the main, the media is made up of white, middle-class people talking to other white middle-class people. People from other ethnic backgrounds seem only marginally involved in either making or consuming the media.

Recent research revealed 65 per cent of black people think the media has no relevance for them. The study was carried out by Maher Bird Associates on behalf of New Nation, a leading national black tabloid. Considering that the annual spend of the UK’s black community has been estimated at £10bn, and half of all new UK millionaires are Asian, the fact that ethnic minorities are so turned off by marketing campaigns and the media must be a worrying discovery.

This is not to say that there has been no change in the past few decades, but it is a reminder that the progress has not been as great as many people would like to think.

Most advertising and marketing professionals and their clients are aware that their campaigns need to appeal to a multicultural society. The current Fairy Liquid TV commercial, featuring a black girl hoping to get her hands on her mum’s washing-up liquid bottle for a Blue Peter model, is an example of the type of commercial that probably would not have been made ten years ago.

The Fairy Liquid ad works because not only is it a well conceived story line, the actresses who play the mother and daughter seem natural for the parts. There is no suggestion that they were chosen to make the product appeal to a wider audience. In other cases, ads can bear the hallmarks of tokenism and for that reason are less successful.

Paul Gordon, managing director of Camp Chipperfield Hill Murray, believes that the inclination towards tokenism is widespread.

He says: “In a former agency, I worked with a major financial services client which, in the context of a campaign that had six executions, requested that one had an ethnic character in it so that the brand was not seen as white, middle-class, middle England. I’m sure you could go to any ad agency in town and find the same thing. But by trying not to discriminate, they are.”

Others in the industry feel that the arguments about tokenism interest those within the industry, rather than the wider public. Tobin Sinclair is account director at advertising agency Momentum Integrated, which produced the recent campaign by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), aimed at drawing more people from ethnic backgrounds and more women into the construction industry. He comments: “I feel that the disapproval of tokenism tends to be the opinion of those in the know, as opposed to those who are living life out there.”

Recognising differences

Though the debate over the colour of faces on TV and in ads is an important one, it is really about the facade of the media. A more pertinent question is whether business has woken up to the significant financial benefits of targeting ethnic communities. To reach their audience successfully, they need to recognise that communities have varying cultures and therefore need to be approached in different ways.

As part of its market research, New Nation editor Michael Eboda discovered that white and black people have different consumer habits: “When free copies of New Nation were offered to black people in the street during market research in Brixton earlier this year, they were far less likely to accept them as they felt there must surely be a catch somewhere. White people, on the other hand, were far more receptive to the handouts.”

This suggests that to tap into the potential of ethnic markets, advertisers and marketing professionals need to be more sophisticated in their approach to niche marketing.

One factor that may be preventing them from doing so is a misplaced political correctness which dictates that white and black consumers must be treated as if they were the same. Many businessmen are uncomfortable with the issue of race and can be hesitant about going into these markets.

“Everybody is afraid to say, ‘What we are about is targeting the ethnic minorities’,” explains Alex Cole, business development manager at advertising agency Francis Williams, which specialises in marketing to ethnic minorities.

“We’ve taken the attitude that we can’t tiptoe around it anymore. NatWest is probably the leader in the field and is not after the ‘brown pound’ in a direct way.

“But I don’t see anything wrong with going after it in a direct way.”

This attitude is shared by others in the industry, including Wayne Bower, advertising manager at the Ethnic Media Group, which produces New Nation, Caribbean Times, Asian Times, Eastern Eye and the Directory of Britain’s Richest Asian 200. Bower explains: “There’s no need to play the equal opportunities card anymore. There’s no need to say, ‘If you are not targeting black and Asian people, you don’t care’. The blue chip companies know that black and Asian communities are extremely affluent.”

However, the history of mistrust between white and black communities in the UK has left a legacy that is proving a barrier for some companies.

A senior advertising executive at an agency that specialises in marketing financial services, says that financial companies have found it difficult to gain the trust of some communities. “The biggest problem in our experience has been that most minorities tend only to use and trust those financial services companies that are part of their community. So it’s a double-edged sword – many financial services companies are afraid to target ethnic minorities, while those that do target these groups find that their campaigns fail abysmally.”

One reason for this failure could be that the advertising industry does not have experience of targeting ethnic minorities, which in part explains the growth of niche agencies such as Francis Williams and ASAP. This is partly because the ad industry is dominated by the upper-middle classes who, while being literate in some aspects of British culture, are ignorant of others.

Ethnic representation

According to Census figures, the UK’s population is made up of about six per cent ethnic minorities. However, of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising’s (IPA) 13,000 members, 9,000 live in London, which has an ethnic population of about 20 per cent.

This should translate into at least 1,800 members from ethnic minority backgrounds. The IPA does not have figures on how many of its members are from ethnic backgrounds, and refuses to even hazard a guess on numbers.

IPA director-general Nick Phillips comments: “Agencies will say they try to recruit the best people, irrespective of their ethnic background. Race discrimination is forbidden under the Race Relations Act, and you have to be extremely careful that your recruitment procedures are fair and are seen to be fair. As far as the IPA itself is concerned, I’m pleased to say we have a huge mixture of people from lots of different backgrounds here.”

Surprisingly, an organisation which has adopted one of the most radical and innovative advertising campaigns is the Metropolitan Police, which accepted the offer by musician and media consultant Charles Bailey to produce a rap song and video as part of its recruitment campaign in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.

Bailey recalls: “I said to The Met, ‘Let’s lay the cards on the table. Let me show you what goes on in the street, what people don’t like. Let me also show you the difficulties white officers have investigating crimes because they are not trusted by the community – that’s the reason we need more black and Asian police.'”

Bailey believes that because he came from outside the establishment, he was able to say things that the Metropolitan Police would like to have said but wasn’t able to because of protocol. The video and CD, titled Taking Care of Business, which stars Bailey and rapper MC Mo Rees, follows Bailey’s character as he gets wrongly arrested and subsequently solves the crime with the help of his friends, while the police are unable to. In the last scene, Bailey and his friends transform into uniformed officers.

Authentic input

Bailey says that at the heart of the video was the attempt to show the diversity of skills of the people in Brixton – where it was filmed – and how they could be used in the police force. While it is by no means produced to the standards of Will Smith or the Fugees, it is a sophisticated package which has that elusive quality of authenticity.

It also perhaps contains a wider message for the advertising industry. Bailey is a self-taught musician with little formal education, but is now handling a high-profile recruitment campaign for The Met.

Just as the police could use the skills of the highly media-literate black and Asian communities, so could the advertising and marketing industry.

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