Tabloid-fuelled hysteria about refugees and asylum seekers has reached fever pitch in recent months, prompting the United Nations to launch a pan-European advertising campaign to promote greater tolerance (MW last week).
Unfortunately, the campaign – which aims to combat xenophobia by showing positive images of refugees – is not likely to receive much of an airing in the UK.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is reluctant to compromise its charitable status by paying for media space.
And the European Union – which funded the creative work, by Finnish agency Taivas – will not stretch to media buying.
This does not present much of a problem in the rest of Europe, where TV channels and media owners have been falling over themselves to help the cause.
But it is a different story in the UK where, if past experience is anything to go by, the UNHCR will struggle to gain a hearing.
According to a UNHCR spokesman, of the “60 or 70” media outlets approached by the organisation for its previous campaign, only “eight or nine” agreed to run the ad for free.
Only one national newspaper, the Financial Times, carried the ad.
The UK media market is, arguably, more competitive than many in Europe and it is rare for any organisation to be given free space, however worthy the cause.
The Daily Telegraph display ad director Chris White-Smith says: “We would probably want to take quite a close look at it creatively before we posted a price on it.
“We wouldn’t normally entertain the idea of running an ad free.
“It is arguably quite political, so that would probably increase the price.”
The UNHCR’s message – that refugees have a contribution to make to society and should not be demonised – flies in the face of the editorial line being peddled by the majority of UK newspapers.
The campaign was expected to launch in May, but the UNHCR’s public information officer for the UK Lynvall Sachs decided to postpone it until now.
“There was an extremely hostile media environment at that time. A lot of the coverage was emotive, playing on the myth that bogus asylum seekers were bleeding the country dry.
“I think we would have had no chance of getting an ad placed in that atmosphere. We had to wait until the emotion had run out of the debate.”
Sachs argues that the campaign’s message is essentially non-political. “We are an impartial organisation. It is our objective to remind countries that they should adhere to their international obligations.”
But is advertising an appropriate medium for tackling racial prejudice?
Ian MacAteer – managing director of The Union ad agency, which recently devised a campaign for Enable, a Scottish charity for the disabled, and an anti-ageism campaign – is sceptical about the power of advertising to tackle prejudice. “My first reaction to anything like this is that advertising is not the right medium.
“The work we came up with for Enable is being used as part of a wider initiative in schools, to target the bullies who are picking on disabled children and make them think about their actions.
“On its own I don’t think advertising can achieve a great deal. It has to be part of a wider process.”
MacAteer is also sceptical about measuring the effectiveness of such campaigns.
“It is difficult enough to measure the effect of packaged goods advertising, let alone complex issues such as racism and prejudice.”
Gary Duckworth, chairman of Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters, which was responsible for an award-winning drugs awareness campaign for the Government, agrees that it is difficult to change deep-seated attitudes.
“It depends on your strategy. The drugs campaign we did was not big budget stuff, but it was something people were interested in.
“We didn’t have to try and dredge up interest. A lot of advertising is built around products that are essentially quite dull, but with drugs and racism you are dealing with big, important issues.”
Duckworth points to Government-backed drink-driving campaigns as an example of advertising which has succeeded in changing entrenched behaviour.
But racism will always be a more controversial issue than drink-driving.
When The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) resorted to shock tactics last year in a poster campaign, the ad was promptly banned by the Advertising Standards Authority.
The poster pictured the face of a black man next to the headline “Scared?”, beneath it in smaller print it said “You should be. He’s a dentist.”
The ASA concluded that this treatment was just as likely to reinforce the stereotype it was seeking to undermine.
The UNHCR work is unlikely to provoke such a strong reaction and could, ultimately, be accused of being too conservative.
Either way, the British public may not have the opportunity to judge for itself.