Last Thursday, after a year when the word “unprecedented” was applied to countless situations, another such moment occurred in broadcast television.
At 9:56pm on 18 February, the UK’s major commercial broadcasters – Channel 4, Channel 5, ITV, Sky, STV and UKTV – paused their programming and simultaneously aired a three-and-a-half-minute video, called #TakeTheVaccine, encouraging people from ethnic-minority backgrounds to get the Covid-19 vaccine.
What was different about the ad spot, besides the rare collaboration between TV competitors, was the faces in it and the airtime given to issues that are typically overlooked in mainstream media.
Prominent figures, including Adil Ray, Moeen Ali, Denise Lewis, David Olusoga and Romesh Ranganathan, addressed specific cultural concerns and myths about the vaccine, such as that it contains animal products or is not halal.
It was a striking moment, because it finally gave a bigger spotlight to the interests of ethnic-minority communities – many of whom feel they have been left behind throughout this pandemic.
Not only have people from black, Asian and other ethnic-minority groups been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, but critics say the official communications about the crisis have often neglected them too.
The advertising and media industries are notoriously bad at speaking to diverse audiences and rarely has that been more apparent than during the events of the past year.
Now, when the stakes are so high, those industries have much to learn from a historic collaboration that sought to close a communications gap and avert potentially deadly consequences.
The government’s comms challenge
From the onset of the Covid crisis, the government’s response and accompanying communications strategy have been the subject of much scrutiny and, at times, derision.
The communications challenge posed by the pandemic was enormous. Amid what Alex Aiken, executive director for government communications, called “the biggest-ever public-service marketing campaign”, there have been missteps.
The reveal in May of the “Stay alert” messaging, which some mocked for its supposedly vague instruction, comes to mind. Another misstep, according to some industry leaders, is the lack of inclusive communications for ethnic-minority communities from the beginning of the crisis.
“It’s been a difficult situation and the [government’s] communications needed to be out in the field really quickly and communicate single-minded messaging. Those needs were the most pressing at the time, but they obscured the reality that, for lots of communities, the instructions themselves were going to be very difficult to live with,” Jo Arden, chief strategy officer at Publicis.Poke, says. Until June, Arden worked at MullenLowe, one of the government’s agency partners.
“It was very apparent right from the start that there were challenges [for ethnic minorities] that weren’t being properly addressed,” Shelina Janmohamed, vice-president of Islamic marketing at Ogilvy Consulting, adds.
One example of those challenges, highlighted by Janmohamed in a Campaign article published in April, is the fact that “non-white households are much more likely to be multi-generational”, so “this approach to self-isolation is much harder to apply and specific guidance is required”.
In some cases, that specific guidance tailored to diverse communities never came. As Arden says: “The ‘Stay at home’ message [which launched in March 2020] was clear and single-minded, but it excluded the experiences of those on low incomes, those who couldn’t afford to stay at home or who were more likely to be in frontline jobs.
"The policy itself was quite a blunt tool and it was easier to conform to it if you were a white person in a professional occupation with some degree of privilege.
“The communications was a bit ignorant of that and it needed to be more empathetic to the lived experiences of all of the UK.”
Another notable oversight came through in Downing Street’s daily press briefings, which for most of the pandemic have been the government’s primary communications vehicle.
“At the press briefings, how often were the topics that were covered about any of the concerns of ethnic communities?” Samir Ahmed, founder of cultural diversity specialist agency Media Hive, which co-created the #TakeTheVaccine campaign, says. “Ethnic media outlets were invited [to the briefings] very late; they were not there from the beginning. Then, were there enough of them there and were they allowed to ask the right questions relevant to their communities?”
Professor Sir Geoff Palmer from Heriot-Watt University told Sky News earlier this month that more experts from BAME backgrounds should have been standing alongside government ministers early on to speak about the virus. While this has started to change recently, Palmer said the shift had come “a little bit late”.
A government spokesperson told Campaign that “the government has provided advice and information to BAME communities at every possible opportunity throughout the pandemic”.
Just a few months into the pandemic, one urgent matter that was relevant to ethnic-minority communities needed addressing: in May, University College London researchers analysed NHS data and found that the likelihood of death from Covid-19 was significantly higher among England’s BAME groups than the general population.
This research was released in the same month as the murder of George Floyd in the US that set off a wave of anti-racism protests around the world and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The diversity of society, government and organisations came under greater scrutiny and it became evident that “there is a structural racism in the way the pandemic has played out”, Arden points out.
The government later published a report into the impact of the pandemic on BAME communities, but it “didn’t get to the underlying causes”, Janmohamed notes.
The government spokesperson said that the report “set out how the government is taking this work further to ensure the data can be translated into more action to protect those that are at greatest risk”.
The media narrative
Media coverage of the pandemic has often failed to account for the concerns of ethnic-minority groups. Take the frenzy over Christmas being “cancelled” that dominated news headlines for weeks. But there was rarely a mention of the fact that occasions such as Ramadan, Eid and Diwali had already in effect been cancelled by coronavirus restrictions earlier in the year.
Recently, there were numerous headlines speculating about the possibility of pubs opening by spring, but for many Muslims, “opening up a pub doesn’t matter to them”, Ahmed says.
Now that prime minister Boris Johnson has set out a roadmap for England to exit lockdown, many media outlets have talked about the impact of the continued restrictions on Easter celebrations, while failing to recognise that Ramadan – a milestone in the Islamic calendar – begins on 12 April, he adds.
Throughout the pandemic, communications from the government and mainstream institutions “has shown a lack of cultural confidence in the strategy, planning and execution. There’s been a lack of truly understanding what will resonate, when it will resonate and how to reach certain people,” Asad Dhunna, founder and chief executive of diversity and inclusion consultancy The Unmistakables, concludes.
Dhunna defines “cultural confidence” as “the ease and intelligence with which you can navigate difference and people”. And the dearth of this intelligence has affected far more than just ethnic-minority groups. He cites the example of a recent government “Stay at home” ad, which depicted women in stereotypical domestic roles; the only man pictured in the ad was sitting idly on a sofa.
But in those communication gaps, a number of grassroots initiatives have sprung up.
“That lack of cultural confidence is why there have been these grassroots campaigns set up that gain a lot of traction. People are counterbalancing what we’re not getting from official communications,” Dhunna explains.
That happened last year when Ray, the actor and comedian who created and stars in TV series Citizen Khan, wrote a script for a video with a stay-at-home message targeting the British Asian community. Ray contacted Ahmed from Media Hive and together they created “four or five videos” last year for diverse audiences that covered “areas not picked up by mainstream media or government communications”, Ahmed explains.
Those videos, which were made for and largely circulated on social media, seemed to make an impact, so Ray and Ahmed teamed up again in January when figures began to point to a huge racial disparity in Covid-19 vaccinations.
Research has shown that ethnic minorities – the same groups who are most adversely affected by the pandemic – are also less likely to get vaccinated than white people in England.
While up to 85% of UK adults say they are likely to take the Covid-19 vaccine, the 15% who are vaccine-hesitant skew heavily towards ethnic-minority groups, according to a study from the Office for National Statistics. White people in England are more than twice as likely to have been vaccinated as people from black backgrounds and three times as likely as people from mixed-ethnic backgrounds, according to data from the Royal College of GPs.
A January report from the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, which advises the government, found that vaccine hesitancy was highest in black or black British groups, with 72% stating they were unlikely or very unlikely to get the jab.
For Ray, Ahmed and others, the figures rang alarm bells, but they found the advertising and communications about vaccine hesitancy that is specifically tailored to ethnic-minority groups to be lacking.
In February, NHS England released a video encouraging older people to get the vaccine, but even that was revealing: it starred Sir Elton John and Sir Michael Caine – two older white men. “They’re considered ‘national treasures’, but primarily to a white audience,” Arden points out. “It’s a really reductive way of thinking about how people respond to other people.”
Equality campaigners have been calling for more robust communications to address misinformation and boost vaccine confidence among diverse groups.
As part of the government’s UK Covid-19 Vaccine Uptake Plan, the government spokesperson said it is “working with more than 50 BAME media and 43 ethnic-minority TV channels with a combined reach of nine million, and 14 community radio stations that broadcast in 13 different languages to provide targeted information to these communities.
“We have been working closely with the NHS and faith and community leaders to understand the specific needs and concerns of people in their communities so we can reach and support all those eligible for vaccination.”
The seeds of mistrust
Misinformation circulating on social-media platforms, such as the ideas that the vaccine might contain pork, is not halal, could damage fertility or could result in modification of DNA, is partly to blame for vaccine hesitancy among BAME groups. But fake news and rumours are not the only reasons for the slower uptake.
In a January report, Sage linked the “lower trust and confidence in vaccine efficacy and safety” among ethnic minorities to “structural and institutional racism and discrimination”.
One example of this, cited by Olusoga in an interview last week, is previous issues with unethical healthcare research in black communities. Just last year, two French doctors suggested that the emerging Covid vaccines could be tested on Africans – “that Africa was somehow a continent in which the people could be used as guinea pigs in medical experiments,” Olusoga said.
Sage added in its report that ethnic minorities have “historically been under-represented within health research, including vaccine trials, which can influence trust in a particular vaccine being perceived as appropriate and safe”.
“Part of it is historic inequality and it takes time to get over those experiences. We can’t expect it to be overcome in a blink of an eye,” Janmohamad says. “Those communities already felt unengaged with, which is why it’s taken longer to start to build momentum.”
As Ray pointed out in an interview last week on the BBC’s The One Show: “Especially with communities that are on the margins of society that perhaps don’t receive the mainstream messages like some of us do… they’re not getting the messages and there is deep mistrust in some sections of society, which we’re now trying to address by speaking directly to them.”
Ahmed is careful to point out that the #TakeTheVaccine campaign was made independently of the government: “It’s made by the community and for the community. These are trusted voices.”
This independence was important, because “even when it’s not a pandemic, mistrust towards the government and authority stretches back through history and generations,” he adds.
A historic media effort
After Ray and Ahmed’s Media Hive collaborated in January on the first version of the #TakeTheVaccine video, which featured celebrities from BAME backgrounds debunking myths about the vaccine, their low-budget film made for WhatsApp and social media caught the attention of bigger media outlets.
Fears about disparities in the vaccination programme were mounting and, after a year when deep-seated inequalities had come under the spotlight, the timing was ripe for Ray and Media Hive’s grassroots effort to take the national stage.
They were in contact with the British Asian Trust, which had coincidentally received an approach from Robin Wight, a co-founder of WCRS, who was looking to support the vaccination effort in BAME communities on a pro-bono basis.
He made an introduction to his old agency, Engine, which also works with the government, and the team shot a new, shorter version of the ad that would be suitable for broadcast.
Importantly, Wight helped the team enlist the support of TV broadcasters. Dame Carolyn McCall, chief executive of ITV, Alex Mahon, CEO of Channel 4, and Debbie Klein, group chief marketing, corporate affairs and people officer at Sky, backed the “roadblock” ad break across all the main commercial TV channels and agreed to give away the advertising spot for free.
The team was also able to persuade Clearcast, the TV ad clearance body, to give rapid approval. BBC TV news bulletins covered the campaign too.
Making the minority story a mainstream story
Arden is somewhat critical of the fact that it took a grassroots initiative to bring this issue to mainstream attention. “It’s hugely disappointing that we’ve had to rely on an independent campaign when the government is supposed to be representative of the whole of the UK,” she says.
Still, #TakeTheVaccine was a seminal communications moment, because so often issues affecting ethnic-minority audiences are “the fourth or fifth item on the news list or not brought up at all at government press conferences”, Ahmed says.
“One of our big challenges was how do we make the minority story a mainstream story,” he continues. “It was important to have a national broadcast to show it’s not a minority story any more – it affects everybody if a significant portion of the population is not vaccinated. There’s vaccine hesitancy in all communities. This has its place on a mainstream channel because it’s not just ethnic concerns.”
At the same time as it aired on the major broadcasters, the #TakeTheVaccine ad also played on community-focused channels such as the Islam Channel and British Muslim TV. The campaign group also made the video downloadable – a strategy that would ensure it could be easily shared on social channels such as WhatsApp and “go through what I call the ‘auntie ether’”, Dhunna says.
“For these community channels, very rarely is their story covered in such a big way. That’s a takeaway from this: could the mainstream broadcasters collaborate more closely with the ethnic broadcasters, online and print outlets? Could the bigger agencies learn from smaller agencies like us?” Ahmed says. “Once upon a time, the service I did was seen as a luxury or a bonus. But now because of how the diversity agenda has shifted so quickly, this service has become a necessity.”
Ahmed raises a wider point that has become even more evident since last year: while many businesses, including those in advertising and media, are finally recognising the importance of diversity within their workforces and in the audiences they serve, “there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done in the inclusion part”, he says.
Janmohamed adds: “We tend to think about diversity as a separate, siloed thing and that ‘diverse communities’ need to have a separate strand of communications. What's become very apparent, because of the nature of the pandemic, is everything that affects other communities affects everybody. If we ever need an example of why we need to have a more inclusive view of audiences, this is it.”
A moment for change
The structural inequalities within society that have put ethnic minorities at a disadvantage during the pandemic are also mirrored within advertising and media. “In advertising, there is a white default in the same way I believe there is a male default. I don’t see that many black and brown people being involved in decision-making where it really matters,” Arden says.
But when communications plays such a vital role during a crisis, that lack of representation can have serious consequences.
“Until we have diverse people inside making informed decisions, we won’t have true representation,” Dhunna says. “What we need to ask ourselves is: isn’t it interesting that it takes death or potential death to be the point at which the change happens?”
Some industry leaders are hopeful that, after the events of the past year, the sector has finally reached a turning point in how it represents and reaches diverse audiences. But they say moments such as the #TakeTheVaccine ad roadblock must not stand on their own and 2021 is an opportunity to bring real action.
“People are thinking about what role they can play in rebuilding and rebuilding better, and knowing that when it comes to a national pandemic we can’t leave anyone behind,” Dhunna says.
Arden adds: “Surely there’s a way to create communications which includes us all in an issue which affects us all. That takes more innovative thinking, but it also takes putting people from those groups into the heart of decision-making and power.
"And it’s not beyond the realms of human invention to rectify that quickly – if we can vaccinate all of the UK in six months, then surely we can put people of colour in positions of power and decision-making in a similar timeframe.”