Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Stop making such a song and dance about stereotypes

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The Independent Online

I am showing my age; I can no longer rage on demand. Forgive me, my anti-racist chums, if I decline to join you in this latest tantrum over the way bastard advertisers stereotype black and Asian punters. I cannot whip up the right kind of indignation, even though it is the venerable Independent Television Commission which tells me in its latest report, Boxed In, that "stereotypes" can "even unintentionally, encourage damaging racist assumptions".

In focus group meetings, the ITC asked groups of people who usually face discrimination or derision to comment on television advertisements which offended them. Bald men and bearded men were cool about the way they were portrayed; women were fed up with images of perfection and most Asian and black respondents were infuriated by how they were represented.

Most criticised was the Reed Employment advert which shows a black Rasta man putting his hand in the pocket of a white man, not to steal a wallet (which is what the viewer is expected to assume ­ after all, a black guy with dreadlocks is a born no-gooder) but to leave him a card offering him an exciting job opportunity. Asians in the sample loved the Homepride advert which shows a modern British family with Scottish accents but hated almost everything else. These surveys appear periodically and are obviously done for the right reasons, but the central thesis, the methodology and the conclusions are all flimsy and superficial and do not stand up to the lightest breeze of scrutiny.

First thing. All advertising is reductive, simplistic and based on generalisations. The Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock described it as "the science of arresting intelligence long enough to get money from it". Most characters you see either reinforce the world as we think we know it or give us impossibly lovely dreams to strive for. To expect, therefore, never to see a black runner or an Asian chef on adverts is ridiculous. Men who buy new cars (a major target group on all independent television channels) are always heavenly handsome, expensively dressed, drawn to fiery women who wear flowing chiffon frocks and appear tantalisingly in some bleak and masculine landscape. Does this mean that middle-aged men with bellies are tumbling into intolerable depression or that society as a whole believes they have no right to drive nice cars? I also note that the people who are most incensed about racial stereotyping do, with alarming ease, make wild pronouncements about white, middle-class Oxbridge men, the new undeserving class, the group we are permitted to malign, detest, scorn and caricature.

Then there is the silliness of these allegations. For the first time ever, our television adverts now feature a range of ordinary and extraordinary black and Asian Britons, including Ian Wright, Meera Syal and others. The Halifax Extra advert uses a black, bald and bespectacled, singing, dancing Halifax worker who has shot to stardom and is fêted by the financial sector because his winning ways have brought in so much business for the company. Ikea, Nike, Sony, Sainsbury's all use black and Asian Britons to sell their products without emphasising the particular "ethnic" qualities of these people. They are used as the faces with others of modern Britain.

The problem ­ and this is a big problem which this latest research should be concentrating on ­ is that there aren't nearly enough of these images. Advertising agencies can be racist and refuse to cast non-white people or even rub them out. Remember the infamous Ford advert a few years back when the black and Asian members of the workforce were "whitened"? Then there was a Vauxhall Astra advert which showed 2,000 babies. Only one of the babies, way back in the last row, was black. In 1996 a powerful article in The Independent asked: "When are television ads going to show us happy black consumers instead of using black ad singers out of vision in soundtracks to help white people to sell things to each other?" That this invisibility should continue to be a problem in an industry which loves to see itself as cool, metropolitan and cutting edge is truly abysmal.

The Glasgow Media Group research indicates that advertisers and companies still have to catch up with the speed with which wealth is growing among "ethnic" groups. I was interviewing some people at an Indian wedding at the Park Lane Hilton last weekend. There were a thousand guests and as many Rolex Oysters. Ironically, the host family had made its money through Indian food imports which they freely advertise using every stereotype in the book, including the nodding waiter in a gold turban.

The claims of the ITC and others that stereotyping in adverts causes people to make racist assumptions are precious and unproven. Most stereotypes are based on some underpinning reality. Asians are not all corner shop keepers, doctors, pharmacists or accountants. But a disproportionate percentage of us are. Huge numbers of black men and women excel at dancing and at some sports. None of this means that there are no dud black dancers or that white men can't play basketball or that our Asian daughters will never take up social work.

The cry that "minority" groups are being stereotyped by the media in general is frequently raised by people who don't like the world to look too closely at unacceptable behaviour in their communities. So, I am told, to talk about the oppression of some Muslim women or the criminality among some black and Asian youth is to stereotype them. How convenient.

This is not to say that I think generalisations are always harmless. In schools and hospitals the dangers are obvious but I don't believe that we learn these through watching adverts. I remember watching the ultra sexy Häagen-Daz ice-cream ad with a Sikh friend. He was transfixed. Later he said: "Of course our girls could never do anything so dirty. I mean things are changing with Hindi films, but our women have respect. English and black girls will do anything for money. They are too free and cheap you know." This man does not make adverts. He teaches in a secondary school. I can see how his prejudices might impact negatively on his pupils. But an advert showing Madhur Jaffrey in a sari smiling over a pickle jar? I am trying to get cross but can only smile with pleasure that it is her and not Delia Smith on the screen.