A world that still washes whiter

Britain might be a multicultural society, but its advertising industry has been slow to catch on, says Peter Popham
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The Independent Online
Everything we do is driven by you, the Ford Motor Company declares - but not everyone who does what we do deserves to be put on display. That was the sour message left by last week's mini-scandal, when it emerged that the non-white faces in a publicity shot of staff at Ford's Dagenham factory had been replaced by whites. When one of those eliminated from the picture spotted the doctored image on a poster, a wave of anger hit the company, and workers downed tools for a token unofficial strike.

Ford acted quickly to silence the offended parties, giving them pounds 1,500 each to compensate for the insult, and pinning the blame on its advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather. The agency, one of the world's biggest, had, Ford said, removed the "ethnics" in the picture in order to use it in a campaign in Poland, where there are few blacks. When the picture was required for a British catalogue, Ogilvy & Mather by mistake sent the transparency that had been doctored.

The error may have been innocent, the insult unintended. But the episode drew attention once again to the fact that however multicultural and ethnically heterogeneous Britain becomes, a Martian inspecting our society through the medium of our commercials would get little inkling of that fact. On the one hand are the basket cases and low-lifes: the actors in ads for HIV awareness, drug warnings, income support, campaigns against domestic violence, recruiting campaigns for the police. Often shot in grainy monochrome, these feature blacks in almost over-generous measure.

But then in a flash we are transported to another world of whiter-than- white underclothes, of perfect dinners, charming interiors, exciting car rides, brilliant sunshine; a world almost entirely - pace the latest Persil ad - populated by whites. There is a world of trouble and grief, teeming with all sorts; and a world of aspiration and achievement, thinly dotted with the chosen people. It is depressing to reflect that more than 40 years after the onset of mass immigration, this is where we are. The images of ideal Britain are still imprisoned in the era of our (relative) racial homogeneity; only when our thoughts turn to the grim realities will we concede the presence of strangers in our midst.

How is it possible that an industry which prides itself on being at the cutting edge can reflect such a distorted image of our society? When more and more blacks and Asians are inhabiting that sunlit world of home ownership and discretionary spending, why don't the agencies and their clients wise up to the fact and start selling to them?

"Ignorance and laziness," declares one industry insider. "There are very, very few black people in the advertising agencies: the agencies are simply not representative of the world outside - their portrayal of women is even worse. It's always been the tendency of advertising to follow the agenda, not to set it."

"All through the Eighties there was a striking lack of racial minorities in commercials," says commercials director Nick Thompson. "If there was a black person, he'd always be squeezed into the top left-hand corner, with his eyes missing. And I still feel that commercials on the box are completely mono-racial."

Thompson blames the problem partly on the paucity of black people in positions of power within the industry and partly on the way in which people enter it. "The way you get into the business is by being a runner - by running around Soho delivering film. That's how I got in, even after five years of college. A lot of blacks get stuck as runners, bumping along the bottom, whereas whites who observe the basic rules - smile all the time, be good-looking, be fast, keep your mouth shut - more often get the opportunity to rise."

Yet there has been some change in the past five years. "There are people from the minorities doing real jobs and getting places now," he says. Probably the most conspicuously successful is Trevor Robinson, who, formerly with his partner Alan Young and latterly on his own, has made a string of hugely successful campaigns, including Martini, Apple Tango, Lucky Lady and Impact.

"More and more of us have encroached on the industry," is how Robinson puts it. "Advertising is a pretty nervous industry, erratic, volatile. Everyone's scared of being fired, no one helps people - but it's an industry where people who are good can succeed. Success in advertising is basically simple: it's just about ideas. You get more and more opportunities the more money you make, and now there are more like us coming up."

Robinson credits the change not to any excess of conscience on the industry's part, but simply to the rigours of the recession. "There used to be a lot of the old school tie, but the recession weeded out a lot of these confused old men who think they're doing art. It used to be about who you knew. Now it's a lot to do with how good you are."

Naresh Ramchandani, a director with the St Luke's agency, is still frustrated by the difficulty of getting multicultural Britain represented in ads. "People won't take a chance: clients look at the proportion of black people in the country and the proportion in the ad and go for all whites. By the same logic, if you do put a black person in, it's seen that you're making some kind of statement.

"The problem is that people assume the person in the ad is the same as the person you're trying to sell to. But that's a very limited way of thinking about it. Instead people should be striving to make their ads different: race should be such a good way of making an ad stand out. But that sort of resonant casting rarely happens."

But there are also commercial reasons why highlighting Britain's minorities makes sense, according to Yvonne Thomas founder of the black advertising agency ASAP. She cites the experience of Ford in the US, which for a long time disdained to target black customers - then changed its policy and recorded a huge increase in sales. "There are 1.1 million blacks in Britain, it's still a young community and growing fast - we do buy washing machines and drink Nescafe, perhaps disproportionately so. The advertising companies should wake up and get these people on their side."

One man who has made mult-ethnic casting his hallmark is the maverick director Tony Kaye, perhaps best remembered for his sepia-coloured commercials for InterCity a few years back, prominently featuring an Orthodox Jewish man playing chess with a small boy. Walter Campbell, Trevor Robinson's art director, raves: "Kaye's led the way on proper casting: he'll look at anyone on their merits. It's not positive discrimination - it's trying to get the best people, whatever race or religion they happen to be."

Kaye was at the centre of the last big row over using minorities in commercials a year ago when he was in dispute with Saatchi and Saatchi over payment for an aborted commercial for British Airways expected to be one of the most expensive ever made. Kaye claimed that BA instructed him not to use so many black, Asian, Oriental and Jewish actors. "Every time I showed them a black face or someone with dark hair or an olive complexion, they would say, 'too dark, Tony' or 'too ethnic'. They wanted to portray the face of British Airways as white with a cheesy expression."

It is a war of attrition between creatives such as Kaye, for whom a multiethnic world is a matchless palette of colours and looks and faces, and corporate clients stuck with attitudes that at best one could call timidity, at worst, bedrock racism.

Kaye himself, who labels the Ford affair "racism in its ugliest form", is in no doubt that racism is to blame, but doesn't believe the businesses responsible should be scapegoated: "The racism that permeates businesses is the same racism that permeates our society." He recalls bitterly how one of his British Rail commercials ended with a black child drawing with crayons, the drawing mutating into the logo. "They made me re-shoot with a white boy," he says.

Meanwhile, the first commercial to be made for the Anti-Racist Alliance is due to hit cinemas in March. It will, of course, feature black actors. But as it is set in a dingy corner of south London and features a race hate murder, it will only help to deepen our Martian's prejudices.