WORLD: ANALYSIS - Asian markets learn to accept different faces in advertising

The UK could look to Asia for inspiration on multi-racial casting, Richard Lord writes.

The IPA's latest drive to increase the representation of Britain's ethnic minorities in the country's ads highlights once again what a minefield of ethnic and cultural sensitivities casting can be. But if it's tough in the UK, it's tougher still in Asia. This is a region where numerous countries, many with multiple ethnicities within their borders, are often treated as a single market, particularly by multinational advertisers.

With ads in some countries requiring indigenous talent and other markets less than tolerant of foreigners, be they other Asians or westerners, it's a nightmare of local sensibilities and language issues, shot through with an economic imperative not to re-shoot commercials with different casts too many times.

In some parts of Asia, particularly China and elsewhere in the north-east of the continent, cultural preferences have often meant local faces are de rigeur. Paul Loosley, a director at the Kuala Lumpur-based production company Axis Films, recalls Japanese clients objecting to the use of Korean actors. "In this part of the world, people are still very precious about this," he says. "I'm afraid it's true, people still want to see their own people."

However, this is starting to change in other parts of Asia. For instance, a recent TV ad for the Malaysian telecommunications company Celcom used a Malay girl, a half-Scottish, half-Malay man and a Chinese boy.

The answer, for advertisers that wanted to appeal to a wide swathe of Asia with a single ad, has traditionally been to try to appeal to everyone.

"It's most prominent with regional work: when people say they want pan-Asian talent, what they really mean is non-racially specific," Loosley says. "A lot of Eurasians get cast, for negative reasons - nobody can point to that person and say that he's Indian or Korean or whatever."

Except for a few celebrities of Beckham-esque stature, the use of white faces to advertise luxury brands, common in the 70s and 80s, has more or less died out ("I don't think anyone sees any cachet in white people using things any more," Loosley says).

Confidence in Asian culture has grown, with film directors such as Ang Lee and sportsmen such as the basketball star Yao Ming and the baseball slugger Ichiro Suzuki making it big in the west, art forms such as Japanese animation entering the global mainstream, and Japan, Korea and China hosting major sports tournaments. Advertisers are abandoning the mixed-race, Eurasian look in favour of local talent, from places such as Thailand, that can cover more than one ethnic base. Linda Locke, the Leo Burnett regional creative director, Asia-Pacific, says: "Thailand has a huge variety of looks and it's a good place to source actors who look like a variety of different people."

Malaysia is also popular for regional campaigns, but for different reasons; with a few exceptions, such as when an ad is set overseas, or when a brand uses an irreplaceable foreign spokesperson, ads shown in the country have to be shot in the country, and feature local actors (officially, neighbouring Indonesia has the same rules as Malaysia, but there are more exceptions and Malaysian work is often acceptable). Even for local ads, that causes headaches. Malaysia has three main races - Malay, Chinese and Indian - but the budget is rarely available to shoot three times with different casts, so ads often feature actors of mixed race, who can more or less pass for all three. "We're often casting for people that look a bit Chinese, a bit Malay, and maybe also a bit Filipino and Indonesian," the Grey regional executive creative director, Jeff Orr, says.

Unfortunately, this frequently results in some very bad lip-synching.

"You end up with Bruce Lee," Loosley says. "But you have advertisers that don't care - they're just not going to spend the money to reshoot." It's one of the reasons, he says, why so much advertising in Asia is so visual.

As Loosley suggests, economics, alongside the relatively shallow talent pool that exists in some countries, force advertisers to use talent from elsewhere in Asia. "Casting is probably the worst part of making a commercial in Asia," Orr says. "The real problem is that the range of talent is narrow, especially in places such as Malaysia or Singapore. The same faces keep popping up, so it's hard to keep your brand distinguished. The performing arts is still not a legitimate career in Asia."

According to Locke, attitudes towards casting are changing, too. She gives the example of a recent Burnett ad for Singapore's Tiger beer, where the Japanese actor playing the hero and the Vietnamese-German playing the villain were well received across multiple countries. "People are trying to cast by quality, rather than taking a superficial demographic approach and I see that as positive," she says. "It shows there's more confidence. The best advertising is prepared to cast against type, because it's more about having interesting characters." Hopefully, as that mindset becomes more common across Asia, casting people for ads will become less of a headache.