The Race to be “Cool”

I’ve been itching to write a post about my experiences and observations on race in the marketing world for years, but never really could pluck up the courage to put my head above the parapet for a number of reasons. Actually, I’ll be honest there’s only one real reason, which is I never wanted to risk any negative impact on my agency. It sounds silly in today’s world but talking about race is still a hard thing to do as hardly anyone really believes they are or even could behave in a manner that could be described as racist or prejudice. It seems as though there is never a reason or opportunity to have an open and honest discussion about it, so we all just remain aware of it, but at the same time ignorant of the impact on those on the receiving end.
I’m going to talk about the emotions I feel when I see people of colour portrayed in advertising. In many cases, I feel brands get it wrong and I am going to name a few of them. I’m also going to highlight some brands that have done a good job, in my opinion. I would also like to stress that this is just my opinion based on my own experiences as a black person connected to the industry.
Over the Christmas period I watched a fair bit of TV with my family. I’ve spent time educating my children about the stereotyping of people of colour in media and everyday life so that they are aware when confronted by it. You might think this is an easy thing to spot, but I assure you that for young people, it is not as obvious as it was say, 20 or 30 years ago. Nowadays, the subtleties of racial stereotyping mean it is harder to identify and even harder to understand, irrespective of whether a person is black or white. Going back to one particular ad break I watched, there were back-to-back ads promoting two switch services USwitch and the Current Account Switch Service. Both ads featured black men as the main protagonists, which is a thumbs-up towards diversity casting I should add. However, my issue was with the creative brief and the execution of these two ads. Somewhere along the creative process someone had the idea to theme the campaign around what I feel were racial stereotypes. Black character’s that most people would identify as being “cool”.
The example of the ads can be seen below.
Current Account Switch Service:
A cool, sharp-suited, black dude strutting down the street rapping and gesturing to passers-by with disco dance moves to Isaac Hayes’ Shaft.
An American soccer coach wearing a baseball cap, tracksuit and gold chain, explaining that switching suppliers is the easy play and topped off with an Obama-esque “Yes you can.”
These ads are not offensive in any way, and I would imagine that they would have gone through consumer testing and research groups without any red flags being raised. This is possibly because the wrong questions were being asked. The question that maybe should have be asked is, does this ad support stereotyping of an ethnic minority in any way? And my answer would be yes.  
I want to touch on how black people are presented in advertising and used as a currency for “coolness.” Many big brands do this. I realise that this is not always the case, but in many instances, black people are used when a brand wants or needs to be perceived as cool, which is racial stereotyping. So as much as I love this iPhone 7 ad as a piece of creative – it still annoys me for this reason. Although in Apple’s defence, they have a legacy of associating their products with a diverse mix of cool people, so I can’t really put them in the same bracket as the two aforementioned.
However, there are also some great examples from brands and ad agencies who are using their advertising to break down these stereotypes, in ways that are more reflective of the people in this country who identify themselves as people of colour, but more importantly British.
Ikea – To the wonderful everyday
John Lewis – Moz the monster
Curry’s PC World – Ahmed’s Run
Tesco – Nana’s magic soup
I love all the above ads, I feel happy watching them and eased by the fact they portray people of colour as normal people and not a stereotype based on the colour of their skin.
This topic lead leads nicely on to a brilliant book Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race that tackles the behaviours related to race in this country (as well as feminism too). It’s a must-read for anyone living or working in this country as it helps to demystify the feelings of British citizens of colour and their relationship with race. It also highlights how many of those from both sides of the racial divide feel. Feelings that are never vocalised or are hidden for fear of repercussion. It’s so relevant in light of all things that are happening now politically, and with recent controversies or oversights by Pepsi, H&M and Dove. For me, I’d like to see people of colour used more in advertising, but not just used by brands in the race to be cool.