It's here in black and white

A study of how advertisers have portrayed ethnic minorities over almost 200 years shows that equality is still a long way off. Michael Cudlipp reports

A classified advertisement placed in The Times of 22 June 1813 promoted the anniversary dinner of the African and Asiatic Society, attended by its president, the famous abolitionist William Wilberforce. After naming the vice presidents and the stewards, the date, time and the price of the tickets - 15s - the last sentence of the ad warns Times readers: "About 100 Africans and Asiatics are expected to dine in an adjoining room."

This is one of the earliest references to ethnic minorities in British advertising to have emerged from a recent study undertaken by the History of Advertising Trust Archive. The study encompasses the past two centuries, and its findings suggest that progress towards equality has been distinctly limited.

In the latter part of the 19th century, soap companies advertised their products primarily to the servants of householders, and often used crude methods to get the sales message across. Black characters usually needed washing, whereas the white characters represented cleanliness and purity. In 1884, Pears' Soap showed a small white boy scrubbing a black boy white, accompanied by the slogan "matchless for the complexion".

Over more than 100 years, the popularity of black waiters with white clients has not altered, be it the stylised Vimto waiter of 1930 or the seemingly deferential barman with his smart white clients in the 2003 One&Only Ocean Club campaign. Not much progress there, because whereas a Bahamian barman might well be black, why are there no black people buying drinks?

By 1948, there were several thousand black British citizens in the UK as well as smaller numbers of British Asians. Then the SS Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, bringing 492 Jamaican immigrants, including 120 RAF men, who had come to Britain looking for work. Some nine months afterwards, the last use in a UK advertisement of the word "nigger" that we have found was published in Picture Post on 5 March 1949.

The Seventies and Eighties showed signs of progress towards a realisation that the UK had a growing population of British citizens of West Indian and Asian backgrounds, both first and second generation.

Bacardi (1971) and Cutty Sark (1974) remained imperial in tone (dominant white figures with black servants) and Pye (1971) sold its television sets on the Black & White Minstrel Show (the minstrels were blacked-up whites, which caused offence to the black community).

But a 1973 Barbados travel advertisement showed a Barbadian couple holidaying rather than serving. The same year, Access credit card introduced a rather middle-class-looking black child to a group of similar white children.

In 1980, British Gas had an all-black consumer ad for the first time and C&A used its first black couple in an ad. It was also in the Eighties that the National Dairy Council showed the first black/white couple in physical contact in a UK ad. Things were moving.

For the next 20 years the pace was slow, so that a campaign like Howard of the Halifax (for the Halifax building society) stands out as something really special, rather than the norm. The reasons are not hard to find. Advertising agency staff in the UK remain white in the creative and account areas and brown and black in finance, canteen and cleaning. The number of senior executives from ethnic minorities remains minuscule. This must mean that agency knowledge of the new ethnic minority markets has little experience to draw on. They cannot advise their clients properly.

At the same time, the ethnic balance has been shifting rapidly. In Greater London, ethnic minorities now represent 31 per cent of the total population. These are people with aspirations and with cash to spend - powerful, fast-growing new market groups. Surely no agency can afford to dawdle.

The author is chief executive of the History of Advertising Trust Archive, which has produced a CD on how advertisers have portrayed UK ethnic minorities, available on 01508 548623

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