CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/RACISM IN ADVERTISING; Could the ad industry ever be politically correct?

Agencies blame any hint of bigotry on their clients, Stephen Armstrong writes

Agencies blame any hint of bigotry on their clients, Stephen Armstrong


The row over Persil’s current ad, which more than 30 viewers complained

used racist imagery (Campaign, last week), hides a bitter irony. For the

soap-powder giant and its ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, have recently

adopted a creative policy that practically screams political


Last year, for example, Persil launched its ‘Linford Christie’ film,

which featured a small boy idolising the sprinter - the first soap-

powder film in the UK to feature a black family. And, indeed, the

controversial ‘Dalmatian’ film marked an attempt to steer clear of the

patronising ‘woman-in-the-kitchen’ commercials, such as the recent Daz

work, that have dominated soap-powder advertising since the birth of

commercial television. JWT ran the ad past housewife focus groups who

welcomed it. A multi-racial team worked on the account and were happy

with the final ad.

‘Agencies are far better now than they were in the past,’ Jaspar

Shelbourne, JWT’s executive creative director, says. ‘We are far better

at sensing moods and bigoted ads just don’t sell products. We also have

committed directors like Tony Kaye, who champion the cause of various

minority groups in their ads. There have also been official changes. For

instance, the Advertising Standards Authority recently included race as

part of its official remit.’

However, despite moves forward, there have been a spate of attacks on

the industry for alleged racism - some with more foundation than others.

Tony Kaye’s Vauxhall Astra ‘babies’ ad was attacked for its lack of

black children and, with much more cause, a Ford brochure, which had

black faces airbrushed white for a Polish campaign, received a savage


Where there still appears to be a problem for the new school of

enlightened creatives is at client level. Obviously, this sort of thing

is so sensitive that very few people will openly talk about racist

clients, but the off-the-record stories are legion. There was the

supermarket client who asked for a black actress to be taken off a

checkout desk, the drinks client who insisted there were no ‘tropicals’

in his Caribbean ad or the ludicrous behaviour of a top-ten client who

once issued a reference chart on the level of colour he would allow in

actors for his ads.

‘This comes up far more often than agencies would like to admit,’ one

agency board director comments. ‘It normally happens at casting or pre-

production stage. The client raises an objection to a black or Asian

actor and the agency folds rather than making it an issue. It’s easy for

agencies to say they are getting better and doing enough, but what

exactly are they doing? They’re doing nothing.’

Perhaps, as some creatives argue, a few guidelines for dealing with race

and sex issues would help. If there was a code of practice for creatives

and directors to refer to, the suggestion goes, agencies would be

strengthened in their dealings with bigoted clients.

Many creatives disagree, however. ‘In many cases, the clients are just

aware of the prejudices of their audiences,’ Robert Campbell, creative

partner at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, says.

‘I remember one client asking for a black actress to be removed from a

commercial and she turned out to be his wife.’ He argues that guidelines

would hamper agencies and lead to political correctness gone mad.

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising is certainly not keen to

take up this policing role. ‘I think any further guidelines need to come

from the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre,’ Nick Phillips, the

director general of the IPA, says. ‘We must be sensitive about this but

we don’t need to be silly. The BACC should be our first port of call.

We would want its advice and interpret that for our members and provide

a platform for the BACC to explain what it plans to do.’

Uisdean Maclean, head of advertising clearance at the BACC, has no plans

to issue new guidelines: ‘There may very well be a role for us in this

area if there was actually a problem, but I don’t feel there is a

problem,’ he says. ‘The Independent Television Commission advised us to

consider carefully images or references capable of being misconstrued as

racial metaphors and we have taken note.’

Although the test ad Saatchi and Saatchi made for the Commission For

Racial Equality two years ago still rings true - its gist was:

‘According to advertisers, black people don’t eat, sleep, shave, read,

drive or do anything apart from dance and drink,’ - some directors,

clients and agencies are making real changes.

This year saw a Homepride Cook-In Sauce ad from Howell Henry Chaldecott

Lury which featured an ‘ordinary’ family of Asian scousers recommending

Homepride curry sauce.

It was directed by Andy Wilson through Impossible Impact. He says: ‘We

are portraying British Asians as normal people, not some stupid

stereotype. In that way it is political. Clients are going to have to

learn that they can no longer ignore the non-white British. The country

is not just populated by the white middle class.’

According to Campbell, the problem is partly the British public’s

attitude to advertising and the solution lies with creatives employing

their own common sense. ‘If the Persil ad had been a piece of modern

dance on BBC2, it would have passed off without comment,’ he points out.

‘Because it was an advert, and people think we’re evil shits, it gets

that kind of reaction. We just have to be more careful about this sort

of thing than we may think is fair.’


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