The picture staring out of the original application form for an Axa Multipension Plan shows a serene, sober-looking man wearing a shirt and tie, the epitome of respectability. Just the right person for a personal pension - except his image was pulled from the brochure weeks after first being distributed up and down the country to financial advisers. He is black.
In place of the man (left), Axa Equity & Law chose to publish a picture of a sober-looking, serene young woman, wearing an open-necked shirt under a business jacket. She is white (right). Axa claimed yesterday that it wanted only to make the person on the front of the picture more up-market by having her wear a jacket.
But the sudden change of imagery made Tracey Dell, an independent financial adviser in Northampton, see red. She is complaining to the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), alleging that the main reason why Axa chose to switch faces on its publication was because brokers selling the product had complained.
"My information is that when the brochure went out to independent financial advisers, a handful complained that it would be far more difficult to sell the product if it had the picture of a black man on the front," Ms Dell said yesterday. "I think it was quite phenomenal to react to pressure in this way. I mean, if the majority of brokers in this country were asked whose picture they want on the front page of any brochure, the chances are that they would ask for Melinda Messenger. But no company would give in on that one."
The affair contains echoes of last year's Ford Motor Company furore, where five members of ethnic minorities were invited to appear in the picture to show the racial mix of Ford's workforce at Dagenham. But in an "ethnic- cleansed" version of the photograph, the black and brown faces were replaced by white ones.
The company apologised and paid compensation to the five workers. However, an Axa spokesman yesterday said that the decision to drop a black face from the company's sales aid was not racially motivated and was part of its aim to change all its product literature as part of a merger with another insurer, Sun Life.
He said: "The brief was changed in the two brochures to reflect a more respectable image in the second one. The woman is clearly wearing a respectable business suit while the man was in a shirt and tie." The spokesman added that the company had also made changes to a separate brochure promoting another of its products, altering the picture from a white woman wearing a sweater to a man wearing a tie.
A CRE spokesman said yesterday that while he could not comment on the specifics of this case, the insurance industry in general had a long way to go before it fully catered to the needs of ethnic minorities.