ETHNIC MARKETING: SAVING FACE

UK ad agencies have incorporated more ethnic minorities into advertising, but this is often because of clients' forward-thinking attitudes and ethnic marketing policies. Ray Barrett says getting the mix right is important.

Five months ago, the IPA's Ethnic Diversity Project commissioned research which asked the question: "Why aren't ethnic minorities better represented in ads?" And before you think this was a bit of Mr Dudley Do Wright research to make our industry look politically correct, think again - it was totally independent.

We commissioned the BACC to view a month of advertising - more than 2,000 ads - to see how ethnic minorities were being portrayed in ads. We also asked the Royal Anthropological Institute to offer an overview of what it had seen (high-brow or what?).

The findings were more than just interesting - they were extremely surprising.

Seven per cent of the population is of ethnic origin, yet only 3 per cent of the ads had an ethnic minority reflected as a normal part of the UK's cultural make-up. Now, before we start slapping ourselves on the back and saying how well we're doing representing our ethnic brothers in ads, consider this: our findings proved it was clients, just as much as the advertising industry itself, that were behind this rapid change.

It's funny, isn't it? Here we are, an industry constantly struggling to find new ways of attracting clients and prove our worth as marketers by continually reinventing ourselves as one kind of specialist or another.

And yet we seemed to have missed the obvious - learning how to advertise to people who aren't being advertised to. As the great philosopher Homer would say: "D'oh!"

Strange as it might seem, most blue-chip clients, such as banks, motor manufacturers and telecoms companies, have all had their own ethnic marketing programmes on the back burner for some time, independent of the ad industry.

With the odd exception of, let's say, Media Moguls, the ethnic market has gone largely ignored. To quote one of the leading marketers in this area: "We are toothpaste, you know." Also, let's not make the mistake of thinking this is all about advertising to ethnic minorities. We're all intelligent people and we know if we can reflect society accurately in our advertising, then the more honest, decent and truthful it appears.

This might appear a little simplistic. It is. Look at BT's advertising, for example. Easily one of the most successful advertisers at reflecting the ethnic diversity of its users, one reason for this being good old-fashioned economics. How important is BT's transatlantic business? Bloody important. Hence, for it to have real credibility in the market, it has to demonstrate it has clear understanding of the communities it is trying to attract.

A positive knock-on of this is demonstrated effectively by the recent work for Barclays. Be it brave client or brave agency - I suspect a bit of both - it has the impressive Samuel L Jackson portraying black urban guile and attitude. Now, even if you don't understand a word he's saying, his body language, dress sense and his walk speak volumes.

The result of this is a piece of communication that has not only seen a 25 per cent increase in account enquiries, but has given the bank a very different tone of voice in a market where everybody is beginning to sound the same.

These two client examples are only the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous clients only too willing to reflect the world's cultural differences and tap into a very lucrative market in the process. Which, on reflection, makes the IPA Ethnic Diversity Project so timely.

As an industry, we daren't ignore this move towards reflecting the truly diverse cultures of Britain and the rest of the world. We must try to understand who we're supposed to be portraying. Remember, stupidity isn't prejudiced.

At the best of times, agencies walk a thin line between reflecting a culture and insulting it. Mistakes can easily be made without people even realising they're making one. For example, the Tommy Singh "two thumbs fresh" ad for Typhoo made a lot of us chuckle. That is, of course, if you weren't Indian. And if you were? It was viewed as patronising - patronising to the people it chose to endorse it (see the Homer quote above).

The IPA sees it as its responsibility to develop guidelines that will help avoid such pitfalls. With that in mind, it is conducting a series of research groups within the ethnic community plus a series of workshops with some of the major broadcasters who have been getting the ethnic mix right for some years now. And all of this alongside meetings within the ethnic media itself. They say that knowledge is power.

If that's the case then, as an industry, we can't have too much of it if we're to avoid putting our size nines in it.

It might also not be politik to rush out and buy the How to Hire a Black Man book. In my first meeting with the BBC, as part of the IPA Diversity Project, I was told in no uncertain terms by their head of ethnic diversity that the fact that I was black was absolutely no qualification for talking about being an ethnic minority. It's a lot more complicated than that.

It seems we all have a hell of a lot to learn, and quickly.

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