Media Ads Still Portray UK and US as All-White Societies

If you’re Black or you come from a non-white background, and you’re an aspiring model looking for a career in advertising in the UK, then be warned – you face an uphill struggle.

The UK-based Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), the trade body and professional institute for UK advertising, media and marketing communications agencies, has released the findings of a census which shows that only 1,845 out of 34,499 commercials (5.3 percent) approved for airing on mainstream UK television in 2010 featured Black, Asian and other minority ethnic actors. Afro-Caribbean, Black British and other minority ethnic groups, commonly referred to as BAME, make up 13% of the population.

According to the IPA data, the worst indexing categories of scale, indexing <60, are food, motoring, mail order, retail, travel and transport, telecoms, household stores and clothing. No BAME actors appeared in gardening or household appliance ads, although these are small categories, says the IPA.

Chairman of the IPA’s Ethnic Diversity Group and CEO, Mediareach, Saad Saraf said in a statement: “I have spent over 23 years marketing to diverse audiences, and what this experience has shown is that people react better to advertising when they see themselves reflected in it. So what these figures reveal, rather disappointingly, is that commercials are drastically under-representing the diverse make-up of the UK population, of which BAMEs comprise 13% (ONS Mar 2010), and consequently that advertisers are missing out on an important and rapidly growing revenue stream. I would therefore advise them to take a better look at who their customers are, and hope that these figures will become markedly more representative over the coming years.”

The 2010 IPA Census also revealed that 90.0% of the employee base in IPA member agencies comes from a white background whilst 10.0% is from a non-white background, up from 8.9% in 2009.

Back in 2008, author and blogger, Ben Kay blogged about the paucity of racial minorities in the UK advertising sector. “There aren’t many racial minorities in our ads, at least not in the good ads that might make you want to get into advertising,” he noted. Three years later, clearly not much has changed.

Looking further afield at Pan-European advertising, Kay predicted that there would be even fewer opportunities for racial minorities to gain a foothold in the European Union advertising sector.

“Aside from the fact that most of Europe is Caucasian, the vast majority of the spenders in Europe are definitely so. Add to that the very real racism of countries like Italy and Spain and you have territories where the inclusion of racial minorities is very unlikely to happen. And now that more and more of the UK’s ads are for other markets, this is only going to increase,” said Kay.

He added: “There aren’t as many racial minorities in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, so for those directors and creatives, it’s unlikely that the first person they think of casting for a commercial will be a racial minority, and the absence of such may not even occur to them.”

All the same, the UK’s IPA is reportedly piloting a number of programs and initiatives to encourage British advertisers to boost minority hiring, in a bid to try and quell the continuing controversy over the under-representation of minorities in advertising, an issue that still bedevils the U.S. ad industry.

The US situation is nothing short of ironic. 2010 census estimates show that America’s racial minorities accounted for roughly 85 percent of the nation’s population growth over the last decade. Hispanics reportedly account for much of the gain in many of the states picking up new House seats. Despite that, minorities are underrepresented in most advertising agencies. Given the dramatic shift in the country’s ethnic demographics, you would think the advertising agencies would be keen to source creative talent from diverse cultural backgrounds to help broaden their reach.

Not so says Carlos Cortes, Professor Emeritus of history at the University of California, Riverside. Cortes whose books include The Children are Watching: How the Media Teach about Diversity (2000) and The Making – And Remaking – Of a Multiculturalist (2002) says: “Sure, from time to time, you find an ad with a black or an Asian American. Occasionally there may even be a Hispanic or an Indian (meaning someone who looks the way the media feel Hispanics or Indians are supposed to look) … But for the most part, advertising appears suspiciously like that same old segregated neighbourhood that we knew before the 1960s supposedly brought us integration.

Well-intentioned as they may be, what studies like those done by the IPA don’t reveal is the insidious practice by some of the world’s leading media houses and advertising agencies of doctoring the images of black and other non-white models to make them appear fairer.

African-American "Precious" star Gabourey Sidibe

In September 2010 Elle magazine came under fire from critics throughout the US for allegedly lightening the skin of African-American “Precious” star Gabourey Sidibe on its 25th anniversary U.S. edition. It wasn’t the first time that Elle had been accused of whitewashing faces on its cover. Following the Gabourey Sidibe controversy, the magazine was severely criticised for allegedly photoshopping the skin of Bollywood sensation and former Miss World, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan on the Indian edition of the magazine.

According to the Times of India Bachchan was so furious that her photo had been digitally altered to give her skin a fairer shade, she contemplated suing the magazine. She told the Times she was stunned that magazines would lighten the skin of a cover model to sell more copies. A friend of the actress told the Times. “She believed that these things don’t happen anymore. Not in this day and age when women are recognized for their merit, and not for the colour of their skin.”

Three years ago L’Oreal was accused of whitening Beyoncé’s face in a magazine ad. The company denied the charge. Earlier this year photos of Beyonce surfaced in the media that made her appear even fairer. Ugandan-born, British journalist and author, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was so upset she voiced her disgust in an article in the Daily Mail, and upbraided Beyonce for “betraying all Black and Asian women.”


Recalling her experience in a nursery class in Wandsworth, South London, where a teacher was conducting a test to discover how the children felt about their race, Alibhai-Brown who is of Pakistani descent said each child in the class was asked to hug the doll in the classroom that looked most like them.

“Naomi, a black girl, at once grabbed a blonde, blue-eyed doll and wouldn’t let go. Tears rolled down her face when it was gently taken from her.” She added: “Too many black and Asian children grow up understanding the sad truth that to have dark skin is to be somehow inferior. The young daughter of one of my relatives even tried to scrub her ‘dirty’ skin off with a Brillo Pad, such was her loathing for her natural colour.” Against this backdrop, the seeming whitening of Beyonce’s complexion was a hard pill for Alibhai-Brown to swallow.

“When black celebrities appear to deny their heritage by trying to make themselves look white, I despair for the youngsters who see those images,” she lamented.

Echoing the concerns of many in Black and other minority ethnic communities in the UK and the US, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s fears are given credence by the findings of numerous sociological studies done on the psychological effects of media commercials on children.

One study recently cited by the US-based Journal of Consumer Affairs, noted: “Advertising bombards children in America. The average child in the US may see more than 20,000 commercials per year i addition to some television commercials that are actually hour-long commercials for toys and games (Murray and Lonnborg 1995). American children aged 2 through 11 watch television for 19 hours and 40 minutes per week (Neilson Media Research 2000).”

The study further concluded. “By transmitting selective images and ideas, television commercial not only teach young consumers to buy and consume certain products, but they also teach them to accept certain beliefs and values. Thus what children think of various ethnic minorities such as Blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans is often is often influenced by what they see on television programs and advertising (Shrum, Wyer and O’Guinn 1998).

*Interestingly, the Oil of Olay ad at the beginning of this post which features 60 year-old Twiggy, hailed as one of the world’s first supermodels, was heavily retouched and, as a result, it was banned in the UK. It was deemed misleading because it made it look as if you could achieve plastic-surgery-like results from a cream in a jar.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s