Viewers protest at 'racist' stereotypes in adverts

David Lister
Monday 18 June 2001 00:00 BST

Advertising on television fails to reflect or recognise the cultural diversity of Britain, the Independent Television Commission says in a report published today.

The regulatory body for commercial television says people from ethnic minorities "strongly objected to stereotypes which could, even if unintentionally, encourage damaging racist assumptions". It set up a number of focus groups to discover how people from ethnic minorities and other "stereotyped" groups viewed adverts.

The commercial drawing most complaints was for Reed Employment, with a dreadlocked young black man seeming to pick the pocket of a white man. What he was doing was placing a note in his wallet advising him of a job opportunity. The commission said the advert "was seen as an overt, even blatant, example of racist stereotyping". It was thought to capitalise on the most harmful stereotype of young, Afro-Caribbean men ­ that they are "naturally" criminally inclined. The "positive twist" at the end was either not noticed or considered a cheap trick.

Another advert cited by complainants was for British Airways. Children played musical chairs, with their behaviour predicting their future careers. One boy is singled out as a future managing director; a girl as a cabin crew member, but children from ethnic minorities are seen in the background and are not allocated a career.

In contrast, Asian respondents praised a Homepride curry advert presenting a modern-day image of Asians with Scottish accents.

But young Asians were highly critical of a humorous advert on tea growing for Typhoo Tea. They felt the workers were portrayed as "simpletons" and gave an outdated view of the Asian community. Ironically, the adviser for the commercial was Meera Syal, the humorist and writer for the comedy show Goodness Gracious Me.

The commission's report, Boxed In, also noted objections to adverts for: the McDonald's Chinese menu, in which a white store manager beat off Kung Fu-style villains trying to steal McDonald's recipes; and Malibu, in which Caribbean islanders go through a ridiculous management training course to become motivated fishermen. A voiceover says: "If we Caribbeans took life as seriously as the rest of the world then we'd never have invented Malibu" because it's "seriously easy going". The report concluded: "TV advertising should not condone or encourage them [harmful stereotypes]."

While the commission said it should not be too censorious, there were cases where action was needed. But it also found that many other alleged stereotypes left viewers unconcerned. Bald men and those with beards were "relaxed about stereotypes"; women thought images of "the perfect body" reflected a wider bias in society rather than on television; pensioners were "generally unconcerned" by images of themselves in advertising.

Some parents, though, were worried by stereotypes that focused on characteristics that could cause bullying ­ children with weight problems or those who wore glasses, who were seen as "boffins". And parents ­ though not children ­ told the researchers they were offended by a Tango Orange advert that portrayed an overweight boy as a natural target of bullying.

Ian Blair, the commission's acting director of advertising, said: "These findings show that viewers are sophisticated in their understanding of television advertising. They will help the ITC to distinguish between harmless, acceptable stereotypes and those few which justify intervention."

"Boxed In" is available from the ITC (0207 306 7743) price £5.

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