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Dominic Mills 

And so this is Christmas...with no ethnic faces in sight

And so this is Christmas...with no ethnic faces in sight

Catch it quick: a rare and fleeting glimpse of ethnic diversity in a Christmas ad.

The ad industry not only needs to diversify its workforce - it also needs to represent Britain more accurately in its output, writes Dominic Mills.

Never let it be said that this column dodges the difficult tasks. Last week, for example, I watched all the Christmas ads back to back.

John Lewis, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Asda, Aldi, Lidl, Coca-Cola, Debenhams, Boots, uuurgh...the list goes on.

It's like swimming in a bowl of custard. You emerge feeling as though you've swallowed a pile of sickly-sweet goo.

Surprise: black, Asian and minority ethnic faces are virtually absent.

An anthropologist would conclude that Britain was made up of white, nuclear, families living in suburban Surrey.

What else might our anthropologist think? That there were no ethnic minorities in the UK? That Christmas was a whites-only festival? Or that they don't shop at any of these retailers?

Of course, we know that the answer to both is a resounding 'no'. Black, Asian and minority ethnic people (BAMEs) make up about 14% of the population and nearly all the population, regardless of religious roots, celebrates Christmas in one form or another.

Let's take some of the biggest advertisers.

John Lewis: of course we're all charmed by the little boy, Monty the Penguin and the Tom Odell soundtrack. If you've got 20:20 vision or a fast finger on the pause button, you'll see an elderly black couple kissing at 1.22 in. Well, hooray.

M&S and its fairies: well, a black girl loses her cat at 0.55 in, and maybe there's mixed race family at 1.05. But why are both the fairies white?

Sainsbury's and its epic recreation of Christmas 2014 on the western front: nothing, nada, and you don't have to be a military archivist to know that many black troops fought in WW1, or Lord Kitchener recruited extensively from the Commonwealth.

I could go on. Waitrose, for example, opens in a mixed ethnic classroom, with a brief glimpse of an Asian teacher (which I only noticed because I was looking) and, hallelujah, one of the shop assistants is black. But that's the point: she's a shop assistant, not a customer. The overall feel of the film is excruciatingly Home Counties.

Does any of this matter? Surely it does. I've written before about why the industry needs to diversify its workforce, but it also needs to represent Britain more accurately in its output.

Earlier this month the Advertising Association published a fascinating report on how advertising portrays a diverse Britain (answer: it's getting better, but off a low base) that underlines not just the social case for doing this, but the economic case too.

There's a slew of compelling observations and comments in the report. Some of them that struck me are:

- 53% of black, Asian, minority ethnic people say they prefer to buy from brands that meaningfully represent their culture and 48% prefer brands that celebrate diversity in their advertising

- Two thirds of respondents say advertisers have a duty to represent diversity

- While 57% of whites say they think advertising represents multi-cultural Britain, but only 45% of BAMEs

- Looking at the output of the top 50 advertisers, 44% are under-delivering against BAME audiences

- Almost two thirds of black (60%) and 41% of Asian respondents felt depictions of BAMEs in ads were stereotypical, and that BAME professionals (such as lawyers and doctors) were under-represented. Just over half of BAMEs (52%) feel their presence in ads is 'tokenistic'.

- "You're likely to notice if you've been left out of something," said one respondent. "For BAMEs, it's very obvious there's something missing."

- "If the inclusion of someone from an ethnic minority is not subtle, it really jars and makes you think," said another.

Back to the Christmas ads. If there are two marginally honourable exceptions to what is a pretty un-diverse body of work, it's Tesco, below, and Boots.

The Tesco ad is not going to shoot the lights out (pardon the pun), and you sense an organisation so at odds with itself that it doesn't really know what to say, but in terms of representing ethnic minorities it does a better job than its rivals. Boots, although I found the story difficult to follow first time, includes a mixed-race family and has a smattering of diversity throughout the ad.

The wooden spoon, though, goes jointly to Coca-Cola - an Asian child in a window - and Debenhams which, (if you look really, really hard) has a mixed-race kid. Hmmm, you think...only whites shop at Debenhams?

Coke's performance is all the more shameful because in the US it boasts of dedicated multicultural marketing teams and makes a big play of its commitment to diversity. But obviously not when it comes to Christmas.

So why is the representation of diversity so poor? One possibility is that Christmas is all about an idealised recreation of childhood, and for most of the ad industry - itself lacking in diversity - that means going back a few generations to an era when Britain was much whiter than it is now.

Zaid Al-Zaidy, CEO of McCann London, has a different perspective. "I worry less about misrepresentation and, upon reflection, more about missed opportunity. For instance, there's been a lot in the news about the forgotten black soldiers of WW1, so the Sainsbury's ad could have reflected this, thereby adding depth and empathy to their story. And the Lidl and Tesco dinner tables could have reflected a modern Britain with a 'mixed race' family.

"But in the rush to execute, such 'technicalities' often get left out. If advertising agencies were more diverse themselves, these things just simply wouldn't happen."

So are the ads, then, just a representation of agencies themselves? Is their own lack of diversity the reason their output is culturally blind?

Well, it might be. But it's a poor excuse.

SSE, the orang-utan...and 500,000 lost customers

Regular readers of this column will know I'm not much taken with SSE's loathsome orang-utan ad.

I feel duty bound, therefore, to draw readers' attention to SSE's half-year results last week, in which Britain's (self-described) 'broadest-based energy business' let it slip that it had lost 500,000 customers over the past year.

So, let's get this straight: while SSE is boasting about how 'proud it is to make a difference', its customers are voting with their feet, 210,000 in the past six months alone.

You'd think, wouldn't you, that all the time and energy it spent devising this spectacular corporate wank SSE might have been better devoted to looking after its customers. As any fule kno, it's better to keep customers than to have to recruit them.

Just saying...I'm enjoying a little schadenfreude.

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Saad Saraf, Saraf, CEO on 19 Nov 2014
“There are no excuses for advertising and brand managers and their agencies for failing to portray the true composition of ethnic diversity in the UK. If you do not reflect us in your advertising this shows that you do not care about us and therefore we do not care about your products.

In a competitive environment where we have choice and customers with disposable income and money to spend are hard to come by it makes more commercial sense to adopt precision marketing and target real customers whoever they are in order to increase your sales and capture more market share.

I do believe that clients should put their fear and prejudice aside and apply some common sense when it comes to applying basic marketing principles.

The lack of ethnic faces in advertising is not something new and it has been highlighted before by Clearcast reports but somehow all the figures and stats fails to translate into marketing plans and campaigns. This is due to a predominantly white suburban advertising agencies directors and the same is also found at clients marketing departments .

While writing these comments in our agency I can count in my department 5 agency staff who celebrate Christmas and none of them is white.

A recent survey we conducted a year ago found that the representation of ethnic people at directors levels was a mere 4%, contrast this in London, Leicester, Birmingham where ethnic population is almost 40% and you can see how far behind we are?”
Steve Padden, ., . on 18 Nov 2014
“Whist I agree with most of the comments of Dominic Mills re lack of diversity in Xmas ads - I think it is strange to connect this to Nigel Farage; surely this connection is only in Mr Mill's own mindset and not found (included in) or supported by his own text. I am not a UKIP supporter but I found this article unfair. UKIP is not BNP.”
Fred Perkins, CEO, Information TV Ltd on 17 Nov 2014
“Dominic: well, you would maybe put me down as a white nuclear family living in Surrey (which I am, as it happens). But that doesn't mean I'm racist or unaccepting of ethnic minorities (which I'm not).

But you are coming across as a PC-obsessed bigot that is more concerned with this 'diversity' thing than anything else.

Britain is, you might have forgotten, a Christian country, and while extremely tolerant of ethnic minorities, shouldn't have to apologise for celebrating "our" religious festivals.

My ethnic friends (and I have many) celebrate THEIR festivals. It has never occurred to me to question how well THEY introduce or recognise diversity in doing so.

Isn't acceptance and understanding of different ethnicities a two-way process, that doesn't need quotas to regulate whether it's working properly?”
Ian Fearnley, Managing Partner, unison media on 17 Nov 2014
“Dominic, An anthropologist would be factually right to conclude that Britain is made up of predominantly nuclear families, the majority are white and many aspire to having a 'Surrey' lifestyle. It is interesting that you leave out the Morrisons and Aldi ads which both have 'ethnic' customers and staff. Where are the Eastern Europeans, the French, the Germans (oops Sainsburys covered them off), Muslims, Jews and all the other ethnic minorities that are not necessarily defined by the colour of their skin? At least penguins will not feel they have been discriminated against this year, but maybe the elves and goblins could have been more fairly represented?”
Tim Holmes, Senior Lecturer, Cardiff University on 17 Nov 2014
“Do you remember when the Olympic opening ceremony, or was it the closing ceremony, featured a mixed race family? Do you remember what the Daily Mail's reaction to that was? I suspect advertisers and/or their agencies are afraid of leaving themselves open to similar criticism – but they should remember that the Mail had to eat its words when Jessica Ennis, who is, um, mixed race, won gold and she and her mixed race family became the nation's darlings.”