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Dominic Mills 

Race and the Oscars // Shades of Farrow & Ball

Race and the Oscars // Shades of Farrow & Ball

Dominic Mills reaches for his Farrow & Ball colour chart as he considers skin tones, Elephant's Breath and what it all means for industry awards programmes

I have the sense, based not on hard evidence but on random study (i.e. just looking at ads in as many media as I can), that the representation of minority ethnic groups in ads has increased significantly over the last five years or so.

Faces and families of colour are more common in casts, almost normalised to the point where it’s not worthy of comment and noticeable only if you look out for it. A YouGov study of 1,000 ads 15 months ago calculated that over a third featured ethnic faces, with the caveat that these were often in secondary roles.

But it’s a long way from just a few years ago when judging by, for example, Christmas ads, you’d have thought December was an exclusively white celebration enjoyed by nuclear families in the Home Counties.

But what do I know? I read a good piece last week arguing that progress was largely illusory and that the real problem — the industry's 'dirty secret’, as it was described — is in the casting process. When there is minority ethnic representation, it is either in a secondary role or involves a stereotype — a black person who is a rapper or DJ.

And even when the industry does occasionally get it right, it quickly collapses into jelly at the thought of offending certain constituencies: witness Estee Lauder's craven decision to recreate an ad featuring John Boyega with a Chinese actor in a Jo Malone ad, for fear of upsetting the lucrative Chinese market.

Thank goodness then that someone has decided we need some empirical evidence. Step forward the three main industry bodies — the IPA, ISBA and the Ad Association — and WPP-agency MediaCom, which has offered up a tracking tool that the industry as a whole can use to record diversity in ads. As an ad is cleared for broadcast, the agency that makes it will be contacted and asked to list the people involved on- and off-camera.

Whether they will be asked to list their ethnicity isn’t clear and I’m not sure how you get over that if they don’t. But it’s a step in the right direction. Without measurement, just as with adland’s green agenda, we can have no idea of progress or not.

At this point, some of you might say there’s an elephant or two in the room. There are...and I’ll come to them later.

But, if the industry is serious about improving minority ethnic representation in ads — and I believe it is — then it might want to look at what the Oscars announced earlier this month.

You will remember how out of touch (and prejudiced) its failure to reward minority ethnic films or actors made it look. In 2015 and 2016 — with a voting membership 75%+ male and 90%+ white — no black actors even got a nomination.

But under the new rules, nothing even gets to the starting gate unless some of these boxes are ticked: at least one of the lead actors is minority ethnic; 30% of all secondary cast or crew are from minority ethnic or other under-represented groups, including women, the disabled and LGBTQ+; studios, distributors and financiers do their bit for minority representation; or the storyline or theme centres on an under-represented group. There’s much more besides, and you can get the full detail here.

Cue cheering from some, but not from film critics, who pointed out that on this basis films like Lord of the Rings, The Hurt Locker or one of The Godfather trilogy would have been disqualified. Dictatorial, prescriptive, over-woke, an over-correction…just some of the nicer things that were said about the Oscars’ decision.

So how would agencies react if someone were to suggest an advertising version of the Oscars' rules? Badly, I think. All kinds of issues would be raised, not least the fact that behind-the-camera targets would be especially hard to meet.

But really? Would it be such a big deal in front of camera? For most brands, skin colour is increasingly an irrelevance, and the larger or more mainstream the brand, the more its customer base will reflect the UK’s ethnic make-up. I can’t think of a category where it would make the remotest difference. Besides, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that people feel more warmly towards brands if they see themselves represented in their marketing efforts.

Still, I don’t think this is a direction the industry will move towards very fast…unless, that is, it is adopted by the major creative awards ceremonies as a must-have tick box like the Oscars. Personally, I’ve always found the woke-ism of Cannes deeply irritating, but on this occasion I might be more tolerant.

And now for a couple of elephants in the room. One, the quickest way to improve minority representation in ads themselves is to do the same in client marketing departments and agencies. But the latest IPA Census did not offer cheering news for agencies in that area, and I’m willing to bet good money that one of the side-effects of Covid-19 will be to make it that bit harder for minority ethic groups and those from less privileged backgrounds to get into the industry.

Two, what is the appropriate level of minority ethnic representation? I don’t know, but it’s surely more complex and nuanced than just mirroring by percentage the make-up of the population at large as a whole. And the Oscars 30% number seems to be, well, just plucked from the air.

Over to you Cannes, D&AD, Campaign, and all those creative-focused award ceremonies….as long as you accept that entry levels might fall as a result.

Farrow & Ball: lots of shades, not much diversity

Is there a brand more hideously middle class - crunchy gravel drives and signature front doors - than Farrow & Ball (and, yes, I plead guilty to having a F&B shade card and some tester pots while we think about tarting up Mills Towers)?

I won’t even try to guess the ethnic make-up of its customer base, but I’d guess that it’s pretty white — more Wevet, if you want to use one of its utterly ridiculous white shade names, than, say, Mouse’s Back, which is a sort of brown.

As luck would have it, three new F&B ads broke last week courtesy of BMB. And they’re great fun, showing the extreme lengths homeowners go to in order to protect their immaculately painted walls.

In one, a couple pop in on friends for a drink but are offered wine in childproof Tommee Tippee trainer cups in case they spill it. You can see it here.

In another, friends pop by with their dog after a walk. They are reluctantly allowed in by the owner, who puts the muddy dog in a hazmat protective suit. You can watch the poor dog below.

The catch, and the selling point of the ads, is that these extreme measures are unnecessary since F&B’s new range is wipe clean.

Now, and I wouldn’t have noticed this had I not been thinking about the Oscars thing, but one of the couples in each ad is mixed-race. I have no idea if this is deliberate or accidental, but I’m happy because I feel it reflects modern Britain. Some however, may see it as tokenism. I don’t know. You decide.

But here’s the twist: in both cases, it’s the visiting couple that are mixed-race, not the F&B home-owners, who are white. Again, I don’t know if that is deliberate or accidental, but I’m not sure the message it sends out about F&B and its vision of its customer base is one that would get universal approval in this day and age.

Do these constitute unthinking micro-aggressions? Or am I being too picky, or over-sensitive? Answers in the comments section below...

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