Close-Up: Live Issue - Do ads reinforce racial stereotypes?

Insensitive portrayal of ethnic minorities risks provoking accusations of racism.

The issue of ethnicity in advertising was once again catapulted into the spotlight last week when a leaflet for the insurance company Life-style Services Group was withdrawn for being racist.

The leaflet featured four black men in a police line-up and carried the text: "Sometimes you might wish someone had stolen your identity."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it attracted criticism that the lack of white people in the line-up implied that black men are criminals.

On the face of it, the ad, developed in-house by the advertiser, was ill-judged: it put forward an unflattering stereotype of an ethnic group. It has highlighted how ads need not only to represent non-white people as a realistic proportion of the population, but to do so in an appropriate fashion.

COI Communications, which has spent almost £150 million on above-the-line advertising over the past 12 months according to Nielsen Media Research, advises agencies to make sure advertising is representative of the population in terms of portraying disabilities and race. It even tested them on their approach to diversity in advertising, among other things, in its recent roster selection process.

However, there are no official guidelines for agencies on the issue from the Advertising Standards Authority, which judges whether an ad should be withdrawn following complaints from the public.

"Obviously, this can only be done after the ad has been produced and we don't have any regulations an agency should follow," an ASA spokesman says. "However, we would suggest agencies and advertisers use their common sense when it come to ethnicity."

Hamish Pringle, the director-general of the IPA, says one reason why there has been a lack of representation in ads is because they reflect the lack of ethnic diversity in agencies.

"The majority of the people creating ads are white and don't automatically think of casting non-whites in their work. It doesn't occur to them," he says.

But for every advertiser that produces an ad insensitive to racial stereotyping, there are plenty that use actors from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Major advertisers including McDonald's, KFC and Coca-Cola have all been running high-profile campaigns featuring non-whites. Mother's "I wish" campaign for Coke features the black singer Sharlene Hector, reflecting Coke's policy of embracing people of all cultures. And, whether you like him or not, Howard Brown, the bank manager from the Halifax ad campaign, by Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, has become hugely popular with the public.

But when using people from ethnic backgrounds, advertisers and their agencies need to be cautious of tokenism, which can upset anti-racist groups.

Although the Lifestyle Services Group's leaflet is an extreme example of poor use of ethnicity in advertising, it draws attention to the many pitfalls faced by companies wanting to use non-white people in advertising in this increasingly sensitive world.

Religion, race and colour all have to be considered, in addition to disability and sexuality, to ensure no group feels excluded or offended. And although there are more and more issues to be aware of, it is in the industry's interest not to alienate sections of the community.

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AGENCY CREATIVE - Dave Waters, creative director, DFGW

"I think there are guidelines that we're expected to follow but, when casting, I think it's more important to get the right person. Ethnicity doesn't come into the equation.

"We just look for a particular type of person. Sometimes, the choice can be affected when clients see the ad and ask for a change, but this doesn't happen often.

"No advertiser wants to look stupid or naive when it comes to these matters. Clients generally prefer us to be open and modest and much more of a melting pot, so ethnicity isn't really considered. People shouldn't be told to adhere to rules because this just exacerbates the problem. Common sense should prevail."

TRADE BODY - Hamish Pringle, director-general, IPA

"Our research has shown that the industry is not racist. But non-white people are often under-represented in advertising. Perhaps this is because most agencies are lacking in cultural diversity, which poses the question: 'Will they lack the ability to communicate with and understand this audience?' "Representation of ethnic minorities should be in proportion to the national profile, but there are some markets that are biased towards non-white people. It's difficult to get right.

"People also get upset about tokenism. Just shoe-horning people into an ad doesn't serve the purpose. They need to be cast because they're right for the part."

ADVERTISER - Peter Buchanan, deputy chief executive, COI Communications

"Our guidance is that government advertising should be - as far as practically possible - representative of UK society, reflecting the diverse audiences the ads are seeking to engage.

"This is true of people with disabilities (who have been under-represented in the past) as well as of ethnic minority communities. We have an inclusivity team at COI that offers specialist advertising and communications advice to anyone in the public sector."

CRE - Trevor Phillips, chairman, Commission for Racial Equality

"In advertising we are beginning to move away from the stereotypes and are increasingly seeing ethnic minorities being portrayed as 'ordinary people'. The exotic Lilt ladies are being replaced by the Asian mum who loves Asda's comfy clothes and the mixed-race woman in the Splenda ad whose kids just can't get enough of her home-made gingerbread men.

"For a very long time, black or Asian folk only figured in the media when we were exceptional. Exceptionally talented, exceptionally brave or, more often, exceptionally starving, oppressed, criminal or dumb. And every exception served to reinforce a stereotype."

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