Most UK advertisers continue to fail to represent Britain’s diverse ethnic groups, according to the results of a study by Manning Gottlieb OMD.
Agencies and brands were found to lack confidence when it comes to portraying ethnic minorities in ads for fear of getting it wrong and offending people.
Indeed, many of the young people from ethnic minority groups surveyed believed that, despite improvements in recent years, there are still too many clumsy racial stereotypes in advertising.
The study into the attitudes, beliefs and media behaviour of youth in the UK involved 1,700 18- to 29-year-olds from ten ethnic groups, including white Britons, as well as qualitative research.
Sixty-nine per cent of Asian youth and 75 per cent of black youth agreed that representation of ethnic groups in media, politics and the police is important. Black females feel most strongly about this, with 80 per cent agreeing.
By way of example, Unilever’s Dove ad in 2011 was famously attacked by bloggers as "unintentional racism", which was then picked up and amplified in the Daily Mail. In the same year, Cadbury apologised to the model Naomi Campbell after comparing her to a chocolate bar in an ad for Dairy Milk Bliss. And last year, PepsiCo had to withdraw a spot for Mountain Dew after a storm of protest over allegedly racist content.
Alison Tsang, the head of insight at MG OMD who led the project, believes mistakes can happen when "there is no single person taking charge of the process so it gets through all levels", adding: "There is a fear of getting it wrong."
At the same time, evidence suggests that brands are missing out on opportunities by failing to target young ethnic minority consumers.
Launching the study, MG OMD’s chief executive, Robert Ffitch, says: "The research is giving key insights into the ethnic youth audience of 18- to 29-year-olds that we just don’t have and don’t know anything about – and yet they are becoming so important in our society. Our clients hardly ever talk about this group of individuals."
By 2016, half of the ethnic minority population will be under 12, while half of the white British population will be under 40, according to research from the Runnymede Trust. Meanwhile, one in four of Generation Y will be from ethnic minority groups.
So advertisers could miss out on targeting these groups unless they understand their aspirations and desires.
The research shows they have distinct behaviour and attitudes, which could offer opportunities for brands. Youth from ethnic minority groups are more aspirational than the wider population, placing greater emphasis on status symbols such as brands and designer labels.
More than a third (34 per cent) of ethnic minority youth agreed that "having the right designer labels are important for a person’s image", while 18 per cent of white British youth agreed.
Tsang said: "They are very much into their brands and buy them more than white youth because they are little status symbols to counteract negative stereotypes… if they look good, it is projecting a really positive image of themselves. They feel they need to work harder."
The study chimes with the latest research from the Advertising Association, which found that only 45 per cent of the ethnic minority population think ads represent a multicultural society.