Consumer Insight: Race relations

Negative stereotyping is seen as worse than ethnic under-representation in ads, Rob Gray finds.

The UK has come a long way since the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in Essex on 22 June 1948 and its Caribbean migrant passengers disembarked.

While the ship that became a symbol of immigration was to sink six years later, the waves of foreign nationals that followed to settle in the UK have transformed the face of the country, its culture, economy and, to some extent, its advertising.

In the 50s and 60s, the only black or brown faces in British advertising were to be found on the side of Marmalade jars. But now ethnic minorities feature in ads for everything from crisps to banks, whether it is Walkers borrowing from Bollywood or the dulcet tones of Howard Brown in the ads-cum-musicals for Halifax.

Barclays has used Samuel L Jackson in some of its TV work, something that Trevor Robinson, the founder and creative director of Quiet Storm, applauds as "quite brave" for such a conservative financial institution. But Robinson believes that, in general, the advertising industry is poor at presenting the contemporary face of Britain. "Even though we are meant to be a creative, forward-thinking industry, people tend to fall back on what they know from their 20 or so years in advertising," he complains.

The industry, Robinson believes, is out of keeping with a country that is changing fast. In January this year, The Guardian published a special report called The world in one country: a unique atlas of multicultural Britain. The report delved into what it termed Britain's "second great age of immigration". The Guardian reporter Leo Benedictus spent eight months looking at how immigrants have brought new cultures, languages, values and beliefs to every corner of the country.

"Something that has really changed, maybe even in the past five years, is that at least small immigrant populations are present almost everywhere," Benedictus says. Cardiff is now home to 10,000 Somalis, Bedford boasts the UK's largest concentration of Italians, Cambridge is known for its Filipino community, Hull for its Kurds and Glasgow for Lithuanians.

In some areas of the UK, however, ethnic populations will not be in the minority for long. Leicester's ethnic population already constitutes more than 40 per cent of the city's people. Projected to top 50 per cent by 2010, Leicester will become the first city in Europe to boast an ethnic majority.

As it stands, the size of the minority ethnic population in the UK is 4.6 million, slightly less than 8 per cent of the country. Indians are the largest minority group, followed by Pakistanis, black Caribbeans, black Africans and Bangladeshis. European Union enlargement in 2004 sparked an influx of economic migrants from Eastern Europe, with 130,000 arriving in the first year alone. Although this has sparked some societal tension, for the most part the UK is a multicultural success story. With this in mind, it is curious that this story is so rarely told in its advertising.

"It is widely believed within ethnic minority communities that people in general are in denial about multiculturalism and the inequality that comes with it," Saad Saraf, the chairman of Media Reach Advertising, argues.

"Whether it is embarrassment, denial or just unfamiliarity, not to engage with ethnic minorities in advertising reinforces a sense of exclusion and prevents success in tapping this market."

The fear of being accused of negative stereotyping prevents many brands from including ethnic minorities in their advertising, Saraf says. He points to a recent Independent Television Commission report, which found minorities felt they were not sufficiently represented in advertising and that advertising did not reflect or recognise the cultural diversity of the UK. For this reason, negative stereotyping was seen as more offensive.

Saraf cites an ad for Reed Employment as particularly guilty of negative stereotyping. It shows a young black man deliberately bump into a smartly dressed white man. The white man presumes he has picked his pocket, but instead of stealing anything, the black man has given him information about a job. The ad was seen to play upon the negative perception of young black men being associated with crime.

Another is Typhoo's "two thumbs fresh" campaign, which was slammed by Asian groups for its patronising portrayal of Asian workers. The ad shows workers on an Indian tea plantation demonstrate the freshness of Typhoo tea with fixed grins and exaggerated enthusiasm while their Anglicised supervisor, "Tommy", gushes about the product.

Foreign cultures and traditions are being absorbed into mainstream British life, a process often overlooked by advertisers. But at the same time, immigrants are adapting (to a greater or lesser extent) to prevailing British mores. Yet few wish to make a clean break from their heritage, even among second- or third-generation immigrants.

"People are proud of their identity and while the expression 'melting pot' is used a lot, that implies everyone will lose their sense of ancestral identity," Anjna Raheja, the managing director of the ethnic marketing agency Media Moguls, says. "The beauty of the UK is everyone keeps their identity but fits in within a framework."

The rise of ethnic media reflects the need to speak to ethnic populations in their own "language". MediaCom has an ethnic marketing division, CultureCom, which works with clients such as COI, the Metropolitan Police and T-Mobile.

Sanjay Shabi, the CultureCom director, says that there are 150 or so ethnic print titles in the UK, many of which are unaudited, that have sprung up to serve various minorities.

He would like to see more audience data provided to help formulate targeted campaigns, predicated on an ethnic audience's greater propensity to buy a product or service within an "ethnic" medium.

Despite a dearth of robust data, it is believed there is heavy consumption of ethnic media, from newspapers and satellite stations to web-based news and music from internet radio and international websites. This not only ensures that cultural bonds to other places remain strong, but creates the opportunity for new trends and cultural changes from countries thousands of miles away to take root in the UK.

This is another consideration for advertisers that is often ignored, yet is finding traction with TV programmers, Mick Rigby, the managing director of the media specialist Monkey, argues. "If you watch some of the more recent successful comedy sketch shows such as Catherine Tate, Little Britain and Titty Bang Bang, you'll see sketches portraying white kids taking on the mannerisms, languages and look of black and Asian kids," he says. "These shows are simply accentuating what is happening in the melting pot of street culture."


- Ethnic minorities wield £40 billion in annual spending power. With the growth of immigration from Eastern Europe, this will rise to £70 billion by 2010.

- Half the population of ethnic communities is under the age of 24.

- Broadband penetration is greater among Chinese, Afro-Caribbean and Indian communities than among indigenous whites.

- Thirty-five TV stations, 12 analogue radio stations and 24 digital radio stations serve ethnic groups (India's Star Plus has the largest reach with 350,000 homes) and are growing share at the expense of mainstream broadcasters.

PThe UK is the biggest market for Asian films outside India; Bollywood films regularly make the top ten at the weekly box office.


Become a member of Campaign from just £51 a quarter

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to ,plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a member

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an alert now

Partner content


Five steps to smashing that interview


Future favours the brave