Misrepresentation of our nation’s ethnic diversity drives us all mad

Get the representation of diversity wrong and even the biggest brands can suffer some seriously negative consequences

In the hit TV series Mad Men, based in an ad agency back in the Sixties, sexism and racism flourish. The Italian-American is considered an “ethnic” while one liberal copywriter congratulates himself on being daring enough to date an African-American.

But have things really changed today in the world of marketing? I’m not convinced, judging by an ill-judged new campaign from Universal Studios for its film Couples Retreat. While the original US poster for the movie showed all eight of the featured actors, when it came to the UK last month, the six white actors remained but the two African-American actors had been airbrushed out.

Of course, it may just have been that Universal wanted to simplify a crowded poster. Using eight faces on one piece of marketing overwhelms the viewer. It’s also possible that the African-American actors are the least well-known cast members so the first to be cut if there needs to be fewer faces appearing on marketing materials.

Or it could even have been part of the natural adaptation each brand makes when it operates in different cultures. For example, most brands tend to use an ethnic mix of people to represent the company that fits with the country’s own culture. So, Nike uses Chinese athlete Liu Xiang in China, but African-American LeBron James in the US. So perhaps it was simply that the studio thought that actor Vince Vaughn – who happens to be white – would appeal to British viewers.

But does this excuse the studio’s actions? I don’t think so. First, if Universal simply wanted to cut down the numbers in the poster, fine, but it should have taken into account that by chopping out the only black couple involved in the marketing, it was giving UK audiences a very one-sided message about the film.

Second, does Universal not think that Britain has people of all skin tones? As an incredibly ethnically diverse country, especially in urban areas, we are used to seeing a whole mix of people in real life and expect this to be reflected in the marketing we come across.

As Vivienne Pattison, director of Mediawatch UK, told The Daily Mail: “I think this was an ill-conceived move. We celebrate diversity in Britain and we could have coped with seeing the same poster used in America.”

Third, research reveals that ethnic minorities go to the cinema less than white consumers, so this misses the chance to encourage a valuable missing part of the audience to get involved. I’m not being as stupid as to suggest that putting African-Americans on a poster means that minorities everywhere will suddenly buy cinema tickets, but it stands to reason that people respond better to marketing that includes some frame of reference for their own lives.

Universal Studios quickly reinstated the original US poster for British audiences in an attempt to quell the PR storm. But are we all being too sensitive about how diverse marketing should be? It could be argued this is being oversensitive, but there have been quite a few recent incidents showing a similar lack of understanding of how getting representing diversity wrong can be seriously counterproductive for brands.

Microsoft ran into trouble in August when it was revealed that a photo on the company’s US website showing three office workers – white, Asian-American and African-American – had been changed on the company’s Polish site. On the Polish version, the African-American man’s head had been replaced with that of a white man, although the original hand belonging to the African-American man remained clearly visible.

Microsoft was quick to apologise and pull down the photo from its Polish site, but the question remains: just what was the person who chose to mask the ethnic diversity of that photo thinking?

This autumn, fashion store Abercrombie & Fitch also fell foul of discrimination laws when a part-time employee was awarded damages after claiming her manager banished her to the stockroom due to her prosthetic arm.

This follows a $40m settlement in 2005 when it was claimed that the retailer refused to hire Latino, Asian-American and African-American candidates between 1999 and 2004. The company says it has changed its hiring and management processes but the court cases keep rolling in. It’s hardly very fashionable for a modern brand aimed at the diverse global youth market to keep facing these same issues.

And last year, a row emerged when it appeared that cosmetics business L’Oreal had “whitened” the skin of singer Beyonce for an ad. L’Oreal denied the allegations outright but these slurs on the brand’s marketing still form the first results that pop up on Google when searching for the terms “L’Oreal” and “Beyonce”. The story might not be new but the debate rages on.

And it probably doesn’t help L’Oreal’s reputation that in 2007, the company was found guilty of employing an all-white recruitment policy for its shampoo sales teams. (Not to mention that the women had to be between size 8 and 12, so the company apparently managed to discriminate by size too)

Or that when Indian megastar Aishwarya Rai signed up for L’Oreal as a brand ambassador, she was quick to refuse to appear in a campaign for skin lightening cream.

Brands must remember that while they must be in tune with customer mentalities, marketing has the power not just to reflect people’s views but to set the agenda. After all, marketing is brilliant at making people change their behaviour.

It stands to reason that marketers are the people best positioned to make diversity palatable to even the most unenlightened markets or business sectors. Let’s make 2010 the year that marketing is seen as helping move culture forward, rather than returning to the bad old days of Mad Men.

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