The advertising industry has always liked to believe that it's sophisticated enough to stay at least one step ahead of the drab dictates of political correctness and is therefore painfully sensitive to accusations that it's actually more than a little backward in any way whatsoever. But the truth is that all sorts of issues relating to ethnic minorities are posing increasingly awkward questions.
For instance, there was much soul-searching when it was pointed out recently that, while at least 7 per cent of the population is of ethnic origin, only 3 per cent of ads reflect the UK's cultural make-up. Thus the formation of the IPA's Ethnic Diversity Project, which continues to look into the issue and its possible ramifications. Not least, the likelihood that ethnic minorities, representing a spending power of £15 billion, are often alienated from mainstream marketing techniques.
Yet most advertisers stare in confusion into this void. After all, no-one wants to ghettoise any notional sub-group, ethnic or otherwise - and in identifying a minority to whom special considerations apply, this is exactly what they're in danger of doing. Once you go down this road, where do you stop? Those who claim an Indian cultural heritage, for instance (more than 840,000 Britons, according to the 1991 census), can de subdivided into half a dozen sub-sets by language. And how do you devise a coherent strategy that reflects the fact that in large cities such as London, upwards of 40 per cent of the population is of ethnic origin but there are upwards of 30 identifiable sub-groups within that total?
COI Communications is one advertiser legally obliged to come to terms with building this strategy. Many of its campaigns (police or armed services recruitment, for instance) must be specifically targeted against minority groups. Last week, it released top-line conclusions from a new piece of research it has commissioned into patterns of media consumption among ethnic groups.
The conclusion? Many people of ethnic origin, especially those in the younger age groups, consume increasing levels of mainstream TV channels, radio stations and print media. In the future, government departments may rely a lot less on specialist ethnic media and it will no longer be good enough to devise a strategy solely based on the use of channels such as Zee TV. Peter Buchanan, COI's deputy chief executive, explains: "In the future, we will be more confident about our ability to reach ethnic minorities through the mainstream media. At the moment, we tend automatically to put some ethnic media on the schedule."
And he implied that other advertisers should perhaps follow suit. "The ethnic minorities are a major group of consumers but the commercial sector does seem to be dragging its feet about understanding them," he says.
Is he right? David Fletcher, the head of research at Mediaedge:cia, suspects the answers are more complex, based on the agency's own research - Reaching the Ethnic Consumer: A Challenge For Marketers - published in March.
"These days, many in the ethnic communities exist to a large extent in a plural culture. There is a spectrum that you move along. You can, for instance, define yourself as both British and Asian, and, depending on the context, one will be to the fore. So in different times and in different contexts behaviour will be different. In media, among younger audience groups there will a demand for contemporary expressions of traditional cultures but that sits alongside a whole range of mainstream media consumption patterns," he says.
In other words, there are few people in the country that mainstream media doesn't reach these days. All advertisers need to find is an inclusive approach to advertising content and the need to target niche sub-groups will go away. Unfortunately, we're a long way from that sort of ideal.
And government groups such as COI are duty bound to identify niche target groups. Fletcher says that once you've gone that far down the road, you often have to use specialist media because targeting a sub-group on mainstream media delivers horrific efficiency figures. The wastage is huge.
This is exactly the line pursued by the ethnic media themselves. Govind Shahi, the marketing director of Zee TV, says: "There's clearly no better way of reaching an ethnic community than by using specialist channels, especially the first and second generations. The third and fourth generations watch more mainstream media but, even here, we have launched a music channel.
And the third and fourth generations, when they want to learn the language, watching Zee TV is core to that. When they see advertising in that environment, it has more power."
Saad Saraf, the managing director of the creative agency Media Reach, agrees: "A station such as Zee TV is being watched by first-, second- and third-generation Asians. People will still go to specialist media for things they just can't get from ITV and the BBC. Things such as Bollywood are a staple part of their diet and the mainstream can't cater for that."
Saraf underlines the problem with wastage when using mainstream media but also claims that we need a better understanding of what ethnic media delivers in terms of audience and its demographic make-up.
He also points out that family dynamics have to be taken into consideration.
"It's often the case that older family members have more of a say in who can purchase what. If one of the younger members of the family wants to buy a certain brand it's often discussed on a family basis, so if you haven't got the real decision-makers involved (by targeting them) then you are not going to get very far. While there is room for the younger audience, there is still a need to target older generations," he says.
Which means using ethnic specialist channels. Ray Barrett, the creative director of Barrett Cernis, agrees but believes there's room for both types of approach: "I don't find the COI research conclusion earth-shattering. Most in ethnic minority groups are second or third generation and are probably inter-married. They have a very anglicised view of the world and it's increasingly difficult to reach them as a minority group. But the thing about the ethnic media is that their figures are very low indeed and the truth is that we watch toothpaste ads and we all buy toothpaste."
"I'm more likely to buy Arena, for instance, than The Voice. We consume media in a way that any English person would feel comfortable with. So while I think this research could be refreshing, I'd be very wary about cutting out things such as Zee TV entirely. They should be saying that budgets should be increased so that they can use them as well as mainstream media. We shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater," he cautions.