Diversity and representation have become increasingly important in the world of advertising, prompting a closer examination of racial and ethnic stereotypes portrayed in marketing campaigns. The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) has now unveiled new guidance that aims to eradicate harmful stereotypes from advertisements.
Advertisers seeking to navigate this complex landscape and promote diversity need to be mindful to avoid potentially damaging portrayals of race and ethnicity.
Below, we look at the recently released guidelines, provide insight into the types of content that can perpetuate stereotypes and cause harm and explore recent Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) decisions in this area.
The new guidance released by CAP is designed to help advertisers interpret the existing rules set out in the UK Code of Advertising (CAP Code) and the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising (BCAP Code) in relation to the depiction of racial and ethnic stereotypes likely to cause harm or widespread offence.
Under rules 1.2 and 4.1 of the CAP Code (mirrored in rules 1.3 and 4.2 of the BCAP Code) it states that:
1.2. Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society.
4.3. Marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of: age; disability; gender; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation.
In 2020, the ASA launched an investigation into how ethnic and racial stereotypes in advertising contribute to real world harms. The new guidance is the culmination of this research and seeks to clarify and convey the types of harmful content that can occur.
What does the guidance recommend?
As a starting point, the ASA will consider an advert's impact as a whole to establish whether it portrays a racial or ethnic stereotype likely to cause harm. It notes that stereotyping may not be clear cut and analysis should remain case specific. The guidance states that this assessment will be undertaken from the perspective of all audience groups, including (but not limited to) the group being stereotyped.
The guidance outlines some key categories that marketers should remain vigilant for when creating their ads:
- Insensitive depictions are highly likely to be unacceptable under both rules 1.2 and 4.3 and can include mocking displays of accents, appearances or beliefs. The guidance explicitly states that 'humour' or 'banter' is not a mitigating factor. For example, in 2017, a complaint about an ad featuring boxer Floyd Mayweather stating “always bet on black” was upheld. The advertiser argued that the ad was humorous and Mr Mayweather had approved the ad. However, the ASA considered that readers would nevertheless be offended by the invitation to always bet on the outcome of a boxing match based on a boxer’s race and by the message that the boxing match was a fight between two different races (Paddy Power).
- Depictions of stereotypical roles and characteristics (such as behaviour, employment, tastes and preferences) are also likely to breach rule 1.2. The guidance states that there is nothing preventing contextually justified portrayals of individuals in stereotypical roles, provided that there is no implication these are unique to this race or ethnic group or the only option available to members of this group. Advertisers should be conscious of this even where stereotypes are seen as 'complimentary' as they still have the potential to promote limiting perceptions of others. In 2021, the ASA rejected complaints about an ad for KFC. Complainants believed that the ad, which depicted two Black men in a KFC restaurant, perpetuated the negative ethnic stereotype that "Black people loved to eat fried chicken". The ASA noted that several people of different ethnicities were shown in the restaurant and that the men were not presented in a derogatory or mocking manner. It therefore considered that the ad did not suggest that "all Black people ate fried chicken, or were more likely to do so than any other ethnic group" (Kentucky Fried Chicken).
- Objectification and fetishising of racial and ethnic characteristics are likely to cause harm under rule 1.2 by reinforcing dehumanising beliefs and affecting the body image of views. In 2020, a car leasing company posted on Facebook, using an image of a Black raised hand and the text “BLACK CARS MATTER. I ASKED HOLLY FOR A HEADLINE FOR THIS A4 (Audi) AND SHE SAID: ‘ONCE YOU GO BLACK, YOU NEVER GO BACK!”. This was ruled not to be acceptable, despite the advertiser believing it was an inoffensive 'pun'. The ASA considered that the ad trivialised the Black Lives Matter movement and fetishised and objectified Black men and was therefore likely to cause serious offence (Lingscars.com).
ASA rulings relating to these issues continue to mount. The release of this new guidance comes in the same month that an ASA ruling was handed down (following Independent Review) in respect of a paid-for Facebook ad by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) which promoted its 'Prison Jobs' scheme. The ad depicted a white prison officer talking to a Black male prisoner and was one of a series of 20 different images, all showing a similar scene with officers and prisoners of different genders and ethnicities. Despite the MoJ submitting arguments that the campaign was a real snapshot of the relationships across the 117 prisons in the country, the ad was held to breach CAP Code 4.1. The ASA noted that the ad formed part of a wider campaign, but concluded that consumers would view it in isolation and therefore interpret the ad as depicting a negative ethnic stereotype based on the association between Black men and criminal activity. Additionally, the depiction of the prisoner from behind, showing his afro hairstyle and pick comb, emphasised the prisoner's race by highlighting cultural elements unique to Black culture, rather than letting the individuality of the prisoner speak for itself.
The growing number of ASA decisions on these issues, coinciding with this latest guidance, demonstrates that this is a key area of focus for the ASA and the public alike and therefore brands must take note. A key takeaway is to ensure that marketing departments evaluate advertising on macro and micro levels, as it is clear that the 'wider campaign' argument is unlikely to be successful where individual ads are ultimately consumed independently of each other.
The guidance encourages advertisers to be cautious and reflective on how they depict race and ethnicity, but importantly it is stated that none of the guidance is designed or intended to prevent the depiction of diversity. The portrayal of a varied range of accents, dress, customs, lifestyles and appearances is important in ensuring advertising reflects the society it is aimed at. Doing this in a considered and sensitive way will help advertisers adhere to the new guidance and avoid causing harm by perpetuating stereotypes.