Minority retort

Why do you never see ordinary black people starring in ads? Because so few of them have jobs in ad-land, the agency chief Jonathan Mildenhall tells Alex Benady
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is not a quiz question. "Apart from Howard, the singing bank manager in the Halifax ads," asks Jonathan Mildenhall, "can you think of any major campaign that has been fronted by a person from an ethnic minority who wasn't already a celebrity?" He does not have an answer, for he does not believe there is one. This is, he says, indicative of how out of touch the advertising industry is. And as the first black executive to reach senior management in a major British advertising agency, Mildenhall, managing director of TBWA, is well placed to know.

"Nearly 10 per cent of the UK population is from an ethnic minority. Middle England thinks nothing of aspiring to be like black athletes, listening to black music, being cared for by black doctors, watching black news readers and eating ethnic food. But the truth is that the advertising and marketing community are far more conservative than the population at large," he says.

There is, he says, too much evidence to conclude anything other than that the industry is institutionally racist. Take the use of ethnic minorities in adverts. A recent study of commercials by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) found that just 3.5 per cent of ads contain representations of ethnic minorities. "It's not just the number, it's the nature of the portrayals that is a problem," says Mildenhall.

"Minorities are used in several ways [see box], but they tend to be used mostly to denote ethnicity. They are never the lead character, unless they are famous, and they are never used to represent an ordinary person. Even Howard is only there because he is an employee. I look forward to the day when a character like Dotty [the Prunella Scales character] in the Tesco campaign could be black, not because she is selling yams or lending ethnic credibility, but because she is a person. Who just happens to be black."

Mildenhall was brought up on a council estate in Leeds, the son of a (white) Jewish mother and her second partner, a (black) Nigerian father. As a result, he found himself in the extraordinary position of being the only black boy out of five brothers.

Overt discrimination is certainly not commonplace, he says. "I suppose I am lucky to have an English name. Although once or twice people have been clearly surprised to find out that I am black, I've never really experienced what most people would recognise as racism." But it is in the area of employment that the industry really lets itself down.

"London is the home of most of the advertising industry. Twenty per cent of the population is of 'ethnic' origin but only 4.5 per cent of people in advertising agencies are from ethnic minorities, and the majority of them are in support disciplines such as IT and accounts departments," says Mildenhall. In some agencies, the lack of black executives is so acute that it is not unknown for them to scurry out and hire one or two black recruits if they win an account with an ethnic target market.

In fairness, other media businesses - not least newspapers - are similarly under-representative, and the ad industry is at least aware it has a problem.

"There aren't enough people from ethnic minorities in advertising," agrees Stephen Woodford, president of the IPA. "We need to address this for both moral and pragmatic reasons." To that end, the industry has established an ethnic monitoring programme, of which Mildenhall becomes co-chairman later this year.

Woodford says that one way to address the problem is to have more people from ethnic minorities in adverts. "The BBC found that when it showed more black people on air, it attracted more black people to apply for jobs. The same could apply in advertising."

Even in Mildenhall's company, only about 10 of the 200 employees are not white - on a par with the industry average. Why? "A major part of the problem is that good applicants from ethnic backgrounds simply do not exist in large enough numbers. Because there have been too few recruited in the past, there just aren't that many at middle and senior levels to recruit now," says Mildenhall. But, even now, advertising doesn't attract enough high-quality graduates from ethnic backgrounds. This is partly because it is still seen as a white profession. But also, in the eyes of many, especially Asian people, it is not seen as a profession at all.

Soon after Mildenhall's appointment, Farah Ramzan, an Asian woman, became managing director of the rival agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. "My parents think that advertising isn't a proper job," she says. "They wanted me to be a banker."

The six black people you do see in adverts

Mildenhall says that there are a few, very specific, occasions when ethnic-minority actors are allowed in commercials:

1 When the brand claims ethnic roots. Lilt has no greater connection with the Caribbean than your average frankfurter. That doesn't stop it using two fat Jamaican ladies in its ads to underline its "tropical heritage".

2 When the brand claims a 'world vision'. Benetton is an Italian company that sells jumpers. But it claims that it wants to bring the whole planet together in one big woolly hug. So, it makes a point of using actors from as many ethnic minorities as possible in its ads.

3 When an ethnic group is the target market. Stay-Sof-Fro is a line of hair-straighteners aimed at black people - so that's who it features in its advertisements.

4 To reinforce 'cool' credentials. Many fashion brands such as Levi's routinely use groovy black models in the hope that some of their cool will rub off on the product.

5 When you want to undermine ethnic stereotypes (rare). AA Insurance irked the Asian community last year by portraying a feisty woman hectoring her husband about their policy. The campaign was about getting people to stop thinking along conventional lines.

6 When they are just people (very rare). Last year, the snack brand Supernoodles launched a series of 12ads. One of them just happened to be about a black couple for no particular reason. This is what Mildenhall wants to see more of.