OPINION: Mills on ... the CRE's latest ad

From the tabloids to the broadsheets, the latest Commission for Racial Equality ad from Euro RSCG has drawn a phenomenal amount of media coverage. Even before I saw the ad, I felt I knew all about it.

From the tabloids to the broadsheets, the latest Commission for Racial Equality ad from Euro RSCG has drawn a phenomenal amount of media coverage. Even before I saw the ad, I felt I knew all about it.

Normally, that sort of thing makes me cynical. Extensive media spin is often the last resort of rogues or those with tiny budgets. Did they just make the ad to get written about? Was there even an ad at all, or just a series of stills released to the media?

Patently, those are unworthy thoughts. For those who haven't seen it, the ad features celebs as diverse as Lennox Lewis, Andy Cole, Mel B, Prince Naseem and Chris Evans. They slowly change colour and race, and, as they do so, each asks: 'Would I be better if ...?' The ad ends with the line: 'The only thing we need to change is the way we think.'

As for the legitimacy of chasing all that media coverage, again my cynicism is misplaced. Racial prejudice is, by definition, a controversial subject, and whatever means you use to fight it are bound to provoke discussion.

Indeed, that is the whole idea. It is only by forcing people to confront their prejudices that there is any hope of progress. Getting as much media mileage out of the ad can thus only be a good thing - which is where it helps if you've got a few celebs to flash around.

Nevertheless, I originally had some misgivings about the use of celebrities.

After all, the racism that is most pernicious is the everyday kind that goes on in restaurants, shops, mini-cabs and at work. It affects millions of ordinary people, not in the OK!-type bubble in which the likes of Mel B live out their lives.

According to the CRE, there is an average of four reported incidents of racial harassment per hour - about 35,000 a year. That's reported incidents, so the real figure could be twice as high.

Moreover, there's a tendency among whites to think of racism in a white versus black or Asian context. As the tragic case of Damilola Taylor shows, racism works on multiple levels. Thus people of African origin can be set against those of Caribbean origin, or Pakistani versus Bangladeshi.

Indeed, I witnessed a case of petrol pump rage where the cashier was abused as a 'bloody Paki' by a customer who was Indian. And so, beyond the colour of their skin, what do the residents of Peckham or Bradford have in common with Mel B, Prince Naseem or Lennox Lewis? About as much as they do with the Royal family, I'd say.

On the other hand, you could argue that the use of celebrities works on two levels: one, as role models for people of a similar ethnic origin; two, as individuals who transcend race. Thus I bet most British boxing fans think of Lennox Lewis as an outstanding boxer first and as a black man second.

And this is where I think the ad demonstrates some brilliant thinking.

There are two ways to combat racism. One is direct and aims to shame racists by portraying them as evil monsters. The CRE, however, has been down this route once before, and it blew up in its face with the 'mugger' ads. Those ads pointed the finger at racists, but it didn't engage with them. And in the end, all that does is force racism underground.

By contrast, this ad is a celebration of race. It says that Britain is a multi-cultural society and that success can be achieved regardless of the colour of skin. It puts race into a positive context and, in so doing, addresses racism across all communities. Normally, I'm sceptical of the role of advertising in social engineering. But this is the kind of ad that makes you rethink your views. It's also an uplifting way to end the year.



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