Last week I attended an ASA webinar to discuss findings following the conclusion of its research into racial and ethnic stereotyping in advertising, which it initiated in Autumn 2020. See my previous articles on this topic (see here and here).
For context, the review had 3 parts: (1) a review of ASA complaints (518 cases arising from complaints over 7 years: January 2013 to June 2020) together with findings from Brandwatch on which ads were being discussed online; (2) a literature review to understand any themes around this issue and (3) public opinion research (firstly qualitatively with 22 mini groups with over 100 individuals and secondly quantitatively interviewing over 2,000 respondents).
I'll come onto the key findings, but some points that stood out to me:
- Interestingly but unsurprisingly (and rightly in my view), for most people, their expectation is that ads in the 21st century should hold up a mirror to society and be multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. (As a mum of two mixed race children, I can attest to the joy my children feel in seeing books with illustrations of children that look like them and I know the same will hold true once they start to watch ads).
- Over half of those from BAME backgrounds (the term used by the ASA to describe those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds including white ethnic minorities such as Travellers (the ASA noting the issues and limitations of this term)) reported that ads inaccurately reflected them, with just over 50% of those feeling that people from their ethnic group were negatively stereotyped in advertising. As such, it seems that accuracy of portrayal is a fundamental first step and is something that needs close attention from brands to help address this issue.
- The findings make clear the challenges and risks of using humour to seek to challenge stereotypes, such as use of accents, given how such a portrayal can often land and if brands are going down this route they need to be alive to the risks of this approach;
- There were differing views within groups as to whether particular depictions or portrayals in ads were offensive or harmful e.g. showing a range of body types.
- One thing that seemed to be welcomed was the portrayal of different religious groups in ads (natural and non-stereotypical representations of such groups).
There were 3 broad themes in the qualitative findings presenting areas where that harm could arise
- Reinforcement of existing stereotypes;
- Creating new tropes i.e. a new set of limiting perceptions, with a lack of Black and Asian families being depicted and light skin being represented as the norm within these communities; and
- Perpetuating and reinforcing racist attitudes and behaviours i.e. even if that was not the intention.
The fact that the literature review found little general consensus on the subject of stereotypes shows this is a complex area and this is supported by the differing views in the public opinion research.
It doesn't sound like we can expect any new rules as were introduced in relation to gender stereotyping in advertising. However, what we can expect is: (i) further research into trends given the differing views that were voiced; (ii) a review of complaints and case handling by the ASA at the end of this year and (iii) more guidance around portrayals that could lead to risks to consumers.
Brands should keen an eye out for the further guidance and continue to take care on this topic.