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ASA research into racial and ethnic stereotyping in ads

Published on 02 August 2021

To what extent do racial and ethnic stereotypes, when featured in ads, contribute to real world harms and how might this type of stereotyping be regulated in the future?

The key takeaway

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is looking to gather evidence on racial stereotypes in ads, what real world harm they result in and how best to combat these harms.

The background

Following the tragic death of George Floyd in May last year and the resultant rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, racial stereotypes and other challenges facing ethnic groups has been pushed into mainstream consciousness. This has prompted a serious review of various aspects of modern-day life, from the workplace to sports fields. These reviews have assessed how race can affect the treatment of people and the role racial stereotypes play within that. The current willingness of society to reflect on the impact of racial prejudices and ethnic stereotypes is unprecedented and is prompting many institutions to change their processes to combat the effects these have on people and help limit the harm to individuals subject to those racial stereotypes. This willingness of businesses as well as institutions to critically assess themselves regarding racial and ethnic stereotypes has been shared throughout different industries. However, it has been particularly pronounced within advertising due to its pervasive nature in modern life.

An example of the challenges faced by advertisers can be seen in Sainsbury’s last Christmas campaign, in which an ad depicting a black father singing the “Gravy Song” received a tirade of racist comments on social media culminating in some consumers threatening to boycott the supermarket. These draconian attitudes towards race shown in the backlash to the ad can result in harm to those people subject to the perceived stereotype within the ad and effect people’s day to day lives.

The ASA is aware of the potential harm to individuals and is committed to limiting that harm, which has prompted its research into the subject matter to assist in future regulation.

The development

On racial and ethnic stereotypes, the ASA has not been shy of interventionist measures. For example, in 2017 it banned an online ad for Paddy Power which contained a tag line relating to the skin colour of the boxer Floyd Mayweather. The ad was deemed to insinuate that gamblers should bet on the outcome of a bout with reference to the fighter’s skin colour.

This appetite to critically assess ads in relation to racial and ethnic stereotypes, combined with the recent increase in racial awareness from the public, has led the ASA to put the whole advertising industry under the microscope. As such, they are requesting quantitative and qualitative evidence relating to the real-world harm racial and ethnic stereotyping in adverts can cause. They are particularly interested in:

  • the depiction of race and ethnicity in advertising, including examples of racial and ethnic stereotypes
  • how the issues of objectification and sexualisation relate to race or ethnicity in advertising
  • how particular cultures, or racial and ethnic groups with religious affiliations, are portrayed in advertising, and
  • the use of humour relating to race or ethnicity in advertising.

This call for evidence follows the Committee of Advertising Practice’s launch of a consultation on the introduction of new rules on harm and protected characteristics and the results of the ASA’s collated evidence will inevitably feed into this consultation.

Why is this important?

The evidence received by the ASA should enable them to better understand the current issues surrounding race in 2021. While also providing them with an awareness of the specific harms that can relate from racial and ethnic stereotypes in ads and in turn enable them to mitigate those harms where possible. It is possible that the evidence will provide instances where individual ads, which appear be on the right side of the line in isolation, may be contributing to a cumulative effect of offence or harm on individuals. These outcomes will allow the ASA to gain a greater understanding of racial and ethnic stereotypes in advertising, enabling them to better police those stereotypes and reduce the harm to individuals.

Any practical tips?

  • Review any ads featuring racial or ethnic stereotypes, even if inadvertent, and ensure that they comply with both the regulations and with general good taste.
  • Look out for the ASA’s output from its investigations, which are expected later in the year once the review has concluded.