Ethnicity – adland’s forgotten mission

Shiny new things

There is only one creature more obsesssed with shiny new things than the marketing community. Image courtesy of Amkhosla.

At the Future Marketing Summit I talked about the way people in marketing exhibit acute neophilia – a love of the new.

This is all well and good, but a the result of this is that we charge in to new places, spaces and technologies without the slightest idea of what the rules are, whether they add value to our client’s business or critically whether we are invited.

And then we get bored and forget about it transfixed by the next new thing.

And what happens is we over estimate the short term impact of new things and underestimate their long term impact (e-commerce, PVRs, web 2.0, social media, China and the like). Incidentally Ray Amara calls this behaviour the first law of technology.

I call it marketing’s Attention Deficit Disorder.

And one of the things I worry that we got bored of and which could have had a far more significant impact on real people, is ethnicity.

Time was that advertising was held up as a paragon of virtue when it came to the representation of ethnic diversity, particularly in the UK. Only five years ago ad people couldn’t move without being invited to ethnicity forums to talk about the way in which advertising was helping to mainstream diversity.
It was all a bit bemusing because we weren’t really used to being the good guys. Remember this was shortly after the less scrupulous people in the business had desperately tried to preserve the right to advertise tobacco and this had cast a shadow over the ethics of the entire industry, and still does.
But five years ago it felt like real progress was being made, specifically in the casting of non-white artists in principle roles.
In part this was because a number of agencies at that time (like HHCL and St Lukes) had strong liberal agendas. HHCL even won an award from the Commission for Racial Equality for its ‘token black man’ ad for egg, the online bank.
Sure there were still issues and inconsistencies. Ethnic casting was getting better but decisions over ethnicity were taken in pre-production so scripts weren’t written about the lives or experiences of black or Asian Britons. At HHCL we caused a stir with our ‘arguing Asian couple’ ad for AA Insurance, but the truth was that the decision to make the couple Asian was taken quite a long way down the line. Much of this was because of the ethnicity of people working in advertising which is catastrophically unrepresentative of the population.
And we have to admit that egg and the AA were exceptions in the normaility of the products. Ethicity was a category specific issue and you were much more likely to see non-white people in ads for trainers or sports drinks than for cars or washing up liquid.
Then the pace of progress slowed to a halt. If you look at our screens these days you’d still get the impression that Britain was a white country, even in London where a third of the population are not white.
It’s as if we all just got bored and something else new and shiny caught our attention. For some reason we are far more interested in whether our brand has a store in Second Life or its sodding carbon footprint of than whether its communications recognise the diversity of its customer base. Few clients have a grip on the ethnicity of their customers, research is still done mainly amongst white people (because white recruiters like recruiting white people), ads are almost always created by white people and 99 times out of a hundred they feature white people.
As a result Ad Britain looks far too much like the 1950s. All we are left with are ill conceived parodies of black Britain like the ghastly work for Trident chewing gum, thankfully now banned by the ASA.

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22 Replies to “Ethnicity – adland’s forgotten mission”

  1. If you look at the population of ad land itself you’d get the impression Britain was a largely white country,

  2. The banning of the Trident ads is great news, but while I don’t want to give the racists ammunition, Britain is a largely white country (around 90% as per the last census).

  3. Fair enough point. But as a Filipina Londoner, am not entirely sure I’d like to be part of some new ‘ethnic’ trend that the ad/marketing industry can use/abuse. Maybe the wasp percentage is merely reflecting the truth (as per Beeker) that those from other ethnic backgrounds just do not easily fall into such commercial employment. They will most likely be in service industries or finance or some other.
    As for the Trident ads. Horrible yes, but I never thought it was necessarily racist.

  4. Ooops – published comment was incomplete.
    London is wonderfully different from the rest of the country, but it is different and most consumers don’t live there. Thus, given the 90% figure, it’s going to take both persuasive effort from agencies to highlight the diversity of their target market to specific marketing directors and skilful creative work to avoid the self-defeating appearance of tokenism.

  5. I would argue that the biggest problems is simply the circles that people move in.
    For example – I am a white middle class male who went to a comprehensive (despite my accent) which was very mixed, ethnically.
    Now, this is where it started and finished. The majority of my non-white friends either dropped out or went to amazing Universities.
    I went to Exeter. Possibly the most white bred place in the world. I think statistics revealed that it actually (at one time) contained the entire population of Royal Tunbridge Wells.
    Then from a red brick University (or not these days, heh) to Ad Land, where it is populated almost exclusively with people like me.
    I think the problem lies in recruitment. Not in the University systems. Give people role models and they’ll flock to Ad Land. But do societal values need to change first?
    I don’t think so. But I do think that (recruitment wise) Advertising fucks itself on many levels.

  6. interesting…. I’m not up for defending trident, I think it’s crap and ill informed… but is it really any more racist than Malibu? Which I love.
    Where one is beautifully written observed and filmed … and so gratifying: the other is just crass… and so is insulting.
    I don’t know. Any ideas.

  7. It’s interesting how context changes perception.
    Working at an agency where both the founder/creative director and head of client service are black, you become accutely aware of how ethnic minorities are presented in advertising.
    And I would always have said I was quite right-on and aware of that kind of stuff before.
    And then you still have people who think that most advertising is anti-white. Without wishing to provide the oxygen of publicity to nutters, check out this guy (I’m assuming it’s a man):
    (you need to read his little comments on each ad to get the full madness)

  8. interesting debate.. I actually think the Trident ad was no more insulting than any other parody which takes a poke at what I think is British Life. I might be wrong, but I was recently informed that MTV Base is the most successful MTV brand in this country. And, there is the growing use of a language/dialect among school children, that sounds the same whether you are from Leeds, Birmingham, London or Brighton and its roots lie in ethnic slang (can’t remember nationality). So when you combine these together – is there really a problem with it? Not for me there isn’t.
    How about the Lilt ads. Can’t remember them causing a problem.
    In fact I find the portrayal of the young indian family in the Vauxhall ads more unsettling to be honest. They are the most British ethnic family I have ever come across.
    As for careers in advertising, I think people of ethnic origin, are more entrepreneurial, free-spirited and driven by the desire to carve out their own existence as opposed to working for someone else. For them there is no logic in promoting someone else’s product or service whey they can create their own, whatever level that may be. What’s more, there are certain religious beliefs which conflict with certain advertising principles.

  9. I was talking about this with Ben and Beeker after the FMS actually.
    I realised that even in a fairly progressive room of ad people there was maybe 1 black person and two or three of other ethnicity.
    I dont think we can expect ads to accurately show people of all races and religions until the industry itself has a genuine mix of people.

  10. Couple of things:
    Like Will I’ve also heard that this guy is a stand-up … no-one has called his act racist (no-one called Lenny Henry racist did they?)
    most of the comments on youtube are about rampant PC rather than racism.
    Given the observations about our industry is this a case of white middle-class people thinking it’s racist rather than anyone else? And isn’t this trend towards namby-ism a bit of a worry in itself?
    Wonder if the complaints started in Chicago where the local baseball ground is called Wrigley Field??

  11. It most definitely is white middle class people worrying.
    Hand wringing and all – ‘Oh WON’T our parents be ashamed’.
    Probably *cough* read the Guardian.
    Or you could view it entirely the other way round – they KNEW it would be banned and now far more people have heard of Trident.
    Be provocative or interesting.. but don’t be mediocre.

  12. What was truly offensive about the Trident ads was that they were utter shite.

  13. That too.
    But aye, I’d say the problem with the lack of non white people in advertising is largely down to recruitment (and the perception of higher management as either fat cats/sort of banker types).

  14. Great post Richard. It’s a hot topic in the US adland which is sadly all but ignored in the UK.
    As for Trident, when you start playing with racial stereotypes (and there’s no question that the Trident work does) then you better be sure that it’s relevant and not there for a cheap laugh. The Trident work reminds me of Jim Davidson’s character Chalky which strangely many people just didn’t quite understand how offensive he was.

  15. Have to agree Will… mostly.
    But if you were setting out to be ‘provocative or interesting’ you wouldn’t have started with this. This work is -at best- mediocre and only provocative by accident.
    interesting point made by yusuf too. I’d have it that this is ‘an irrelevant cheap laugh’ (despite being an authentic piece of comedy) whereas Malabu is relevant … and so works much better.

  16. To add fuel to the fire here’s a link to my blog entry the night of the Football World Cup Final where you can see the road I live in jammed with cars as Italians celebrated winning the trophy:
    Apparently Hoddesdon has 10 times the purchase level of pasta sauces as the rest of the UK.
    Spotted this just as I was off to blog about the Jewish and Muslim communities in the UK and how their perception of the world may be quite different – and how marketers routinely discount ethnic background as a factor. Small world!

  17. What a week, eh. No sooner had I finished apologising for my role in the slave trade than the Trident campaign comes along.
    But I am a little alarmed by what I read above. You speak approvingly of the agencies with “liberal” agendas and then a few paragraphs later use the phrase “thankfully now banned”.
    Funny kind of liberalism.
    Now, while I wouldn’t claim that the Trident capaign is quite on a par with “Crash” in its artistic value, I do feel that the advertising industry should defend its few remaining freedoms. These include the freedom to be mildly offensive to groups of people other than white men – and the equally important freedom to try to be funny and fail in the attempt.
    After a Barclays ad was recently withdrawn for being “offensive to bee-sting victims” we must guard against work repeatedly being killed by a handful of special interest groups who often have an economic interest in being offended. We must also guard against TV spots becoming so anodyne that they simply look dull in comparison with the surrounding programming.
    Some of the greatest ever ads have used ethnicity as a touchstone. Levis (bagels, not jeans); “Italian food so realistic you’ll be afraid to sit by the window”; A magnificent radio ad for a suntan product where the man’s voice becomes progressively more Caribbean as he rubs in the product; a wonderful HHCL Homepride campaign using Indian Geordies, etc; Pot Noodle.
    I cannot see how in substance the Trident campaign is more offensive to West Indians than Pot Noodle is to Welshmen. Unless, that is, you allow for the fact that Pot Noodle, being funnier, is therefore less offensive. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to say in conversation (Sarah Silverman would be immensely offensive were she not so funny) but it is unworkable in law – as no legislation or ASA code can ever make allowance for humour – or for people’s amazing capacity to be humourless if they think there’s an advantage to being offended.
    You therefore have a problem – there can be no legislation that does not ban wit.
    This is why Rowan Atkinson took against the Racial Hatred legislation so actively. We should adopt a similar stance here.

  18. I regret having a pop at Trident to be honest.
    I have hated the campaign ever since I first came across it in Birmingham New Street station when some oik shouted at me ‘mastication for the nation’ in an orgy of urban spamming.
    I regret it because it has swung the debate away from the lack of genuine diversity in our ad breaks towards having a go at a poorly conceived ad campaign (though lets just pause to reflect that it has taken 14% of the UK gum market for Cadbury’s, previously un-represented in the category).

  19. The most important step-forward recently has been the more regular depiction of people of Indian/Pakistani/Bengali origin. Adland’s conflation of “ethnic” and “black” reveals the industry’s ridiculous over-identification with Central London. Just as in Scotland and Northern Ireland today ethnic probably means “Polish”, in large swathes of the country (including some parts of London) non-white faces are generally South Asian ones.
    Having said this, I do wince at tokenism. I think I much prefer P G Wodehouse’s vision of England to Richard Curtis’s!

  20. Taking the collective output of adland and slating it for a lack of diversity misses what we’re in our jobs for.
    I focus on growing my clients business above all else, that’s what they pay me good money for. I choose a message a that will motivate my target and talk to them in a way that conveys that message most effectively. If it so happens the ad has white people but works for my target, then that’s what I’ll do rather than do something different to satisfy my political sensibilities.
    By-the-way, I would argue banning the trident ad reeked of more racism than making it. Numerous ads take unusual but interesting white characters to make a point, we do it all the time. Yet when we do it with a black man, that’s different, that’s not allowed, we can only show black people in a certain way when we can show white people in any way we want. Where’s the equality in that?

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