Close-Up: Do ads need more ethnic faces?

Should clients and agencies do more to improve the ethnic make-up of UK ads, Anne Cassidy asks.

The world depicted by TV advertising is still whiter than white.

Though much has been said, written and debated about the lack of people from ethnic minorities in UK commercials over the past decade, little has been done about it.

Try to imagine a non-white UK TV ad star that is not a sports person or a celebrity. Howard, the former Halifax brand ambassador, or the Lilt ladies, who displayed almost every Jamaican stereotype in the book, might be among the depressingly few that come to mind.

Actors from black, Asian or other ethnic minorities appeared in only 5.3 per cent of UK TV ads screened in 2010, according to data released last month from Clearcast. With 13 per cent of people in the UK from an ethnic minority background, the consensus is that advertisers are missing a chance to reach a large section of the population.

But it's not just people from ethnic minorities that brands are failing to make an impact with. Any sentient human being from any background living in modern Britain would balk at the current depiction of UK society in our ads.

Young Britons don't view themselves as part of an homogenous society, and yet many advertisers and their agencies appear to be operating as though we are all living in an episode of Downton Abbey.

"Culture has advanced so much more than advertising, so that if you are not representing modern Britain and there is an absence of people from ethnic minority backgrounds in your advertising, it makes you look strange and oldfashioned," Andy Nairn, the chief strategy officer at Dare, says.

In the US, where Isaiah Mustafa was made a star following his appearance in the Old Spice "the man your man could smell like" campaign, advertisers seem to be more willing to put people from different racial backgrounds to the fore.

This is, in part, helped by the presence of agencies that target specific ethnic minorities. But having certain agencies for certain races is not a solution, Nairn argues. He says: "The US is more segregated and racial lines are more entrenched. Having specific targeted agencies is treating ethnic minorities as if they have a different mindset. We have got a problem in the UK but it's better integrated and integration is the future."

In the past, the Government has set an example to other advertisers in its depiction of Britain as an ethnically diverse society. However, now that COI is a shadow of its former self, following government cuts, it will undoubtedly have less influence on the industry in future.

David Bain, the planning partner at Beattie McGuinness Bungay, thinks it is up to agencies as well as advertisers to change things: "We have a responsibility to our clients to reflect the world consumers live in. Every agency can do more to paint a more realistic picture."

Advertisers and ad agencies are traditionally conservative, so a retail ad depicting an Asian woman's life story from childhood to old age is probably some way off. Ultimately, it will be up to the next generation of ad executives and marketing directors to pull together to keep TV advertising in step with the real world, because the current crop seem to be failing.

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David Bain, planning partner, BMB

"The under-representation of the diversity of Britain is a problem for everyone. It diminishes how well you connect with a new generation of British people who don't view themselves as living in a culturally or ethnically homogenous place.

"For many people from any background, diversity is a very important part of their core idea of Britishness. Under-representation of the real diversity of modern Britons does a disservice to both the 'excluded' and the 'included'.

"This is, therefore, more of a commercial than a political issue as it mitigates the effectiveness of the work we do for the brands we promote. We have to reflect the world that consumers really live in and not collude in creating an ethnically uniform adworld that is some pale imitation of our real shared experience."


Nils Leonard, executive creative director, Grey London

"Brands and agencies are losing out if they are favouring conventional, white, middle-of-the road casting over the right talent for the job regardless of colour.

"The US moved past this problem ages ago, the biggest brands learning to lose their fear of ditching the mainstream. Remember 'whassup?' for Budweiser? That was 1999.

"Agencies and brands in the States worked out that some of the most effective trends and most compelling talent come from the minority, not the white majority.

"This highlights a bigger problem over here. Never mind the castings, perhaps we should start by looking at the ethnic make-up of our agencies and brands."


Sanjay Shabi, director, CultureCom (MediaCom's multicultural division)

"Some advertisers say including ethnic people within ads can result in a tenfold uplift in ethnic response levels. Next year's Census could help add further weight to this.

"Some unofficially predict up to one in five of the UK's population could be defined as ethnic. Many of the UK's major conurbations are already on the verge of becoming plural states.

"Accelerating birth rates higher than the Caucasian average fuel this further and if ads in some cases are there to reflect real life, then it is crucial they acknowledge the complete make-up of the UK's population to ensure more effective, engaging, ethnically geared advertising."


Jabeer Butt, deputy chief executive, Race Equality Foundation

"This is a missed opportunity. Estimates of black and minority ethnic communities' spending power start from £15 billion. We also know that men of Indian and Chinese origin have higher average weekly wages than their white counterparts, as is the case for Caribbean women in comparison with their white counterparts.

"Yet this does not appear to qualify them as targets for marketing. A more systematic approach than mine will be needed to prove whether Asda's multi-ethnic ads reflect not only a multi-ethnic workforce, but a real attempt to reach a segment of consumers with specific products as part of an everyday shopping experience."