When will BAME protagonists take centre stage in our ads?
A view from Rania Robinson

When will BAME protagonists take centre stage in our ads?

People of colour are appearing in more ads than ever before. Progress is being made, but stereotypes still abound.

Not so long ago, talk was of the lack of black, Asian and minority-ethnic people featured in UK marketing campaigns. How things change. A recent YouGov study of 1,000 ads shown in the UK over a two-month period revealed that 37% featured black people. Without doubt, this advance in representation is as welcome as it is overdue. Yet, despite progress, too many advertisers in the UK are playing safe.

To be clear, brand owners’ efforts to be more representative are a good thing. There has already been a big shift in the right direction and that’s brilliant. Halifax’s long-running strategy fronted by Howard Brown and uSwitch’s campaign featuring a black motivational coach should be applauded. Last month, Amazon launched an ad showing how Alexa can help people in the UK who are blind or partially sighted, featuring a blind person who happened to be black (pictured, above). 

But the job is far from done. In most categories, ads where BAME people take centre stage are anything but the rule.

There are a few exceptions – in particular, in marketing from urban brands or for products closely aligned with black culture, sports brands and fast food (notably, chicken shops; step forward, KFC).

But, more often than not, BAME characters appear only in a supporting role – as one-half of a mixed-race couple or a black friend, for example. Or else they are presented as a stereotype – Asian shopkeepers are one recurring example; black characters who sing and dance or are sporty are another.

Just 7% of ads positioned BAME people as the sole or main protagonist, according to a recent Lloyds Banking Group study. This perhaps helps explain why YouGov found many minorities now criticise brands’ attempts to show diversity through shallow representation of different groups, accusing them of "trying too hard".

Furthermore, most attention to date has been on casting black talent in ads rather than talent from other BAME groups. Where are the Middle Eastern people? Asians? Muslims? And people of other religions? Nike and Sport England are two of only a small number of brands in recent years to have featured women wearing a hijab.

Without doubt, further change will come with greater diversity within agencies and marketing departments. But, inevitably, this will take time.

While ethnic diversity within UK ad agencies is at an all-time high, 95% of C-suites are white, according to recently published IPA figures. Meanwhile, it is now expected to take FTSE 100 companies until 2066 to meet their 2021 diversity target of having at least one director of an ethnic-minority background.

So, until the management of more of the businesses we run and work for become truly diverse, there are three things that the ad industry can – and must – do to move things forward.

First, be bolder and stop playing safe. Consider featuring all-black families, casting darker-skinned on-screen talent and better representing a broader array of BAME actors – including those from a wider variety of religions.

Second, rethink what it means to be relatable. Too many in advertising think relatability depends on featuring actors in their ads who look like themselves – or, at least, meet their expectations of what their audience looks like. But relatability has far more to do with the context within which those characters might feature – real-life situations and emotional interactions with which a target audience can (and will) identify and empathise are what’s key.

Finally, be more aware of possible issues relating to the talent supply chain. Playing it too safe is a problem, but may not always be the cause of BAME people in advertising being under-represented. There is no shortage of talented BAME actors in TV and film, yet all too often when casting ads, finding great BAME talent can be a struggle. So push back on casting directors – and, where possible, clients too – to ensure you draw from the strongest talent pool.

Rania Robinson is chief executive and partner at Quiet Storm