Race discourse and advertising: UK, we have a problem

The reaction to three recent ads featuring black or mixed raced families reveals the depth of the UK's race discourse problem.

There have been three ads recently that reflect modern Britain. They portray an open and honest nation set in three very normal family settings. Those three ads coincidentally, and probably not by design, feature black or mixed race families. The three ads in question are Ikea (by us at Mother), John Lewis and M&S

You could be oblivious to some of the undercurrents that are swirling on the launch of great advertising for three brands that, most likely, have a 99.9% penetration in our nation’s homes. If you go beyond the industry praise and the editorial coverage, the real action, and the action that’s worrying (if not all that unexpected) lingers in the online comment section of YouTube, The Sun, The Daily Mail and others. Please take a look for yourself. Then come back and read the rest of this piece. 

For many, racism is part of daily life. It could be something that you experience directly to your face, or just the job application that didn’t really get anywhere because your name sounds different. Typically it was only noticed if it affected you directly. The beauty and the beast of the internet is that it has brought a lot of these thoughts out into the open. Yes, please re-read some of these comments and think how it makes you feel – not only if the shoe was on the other foot, but also just as someone who is part of the society where these comments are being made. (OK, you may not have ventured to the online forums, but things like "promotes race mixing" or "UK= PC Capital of the entire world!" and "they didn't have the balls to use a white kid in a predominantly white country" are just the publishable tip of the increasingly sizable hateberg.)

There has been a real shift in discourse, so much so that people are barely disguising their identity when it is attached to such views. At least in days gone by there was the pretense of making up online personas – now it’s almost like a badge of honour to espouse them. The comments on John Lewis should be around how the young boy is just like my son/nephew/brother in that he’s scared of the dark. The comments about Ikea should be focused on the similarity of the crazy balance we all have in family life. The comments on M&S should be about the wonder of Christmas and its power to unite us all. But not all of them are, with a ugly minority hijacking the conversation and starting to be more and more vocal. 

We make ads, so what can we do about it? Nothing? But we can. It would be great if we could get to a point where we see people not as their skin colour, but as who they are and the lives they lead. And as much as we all try to hope this is the case, we know that there is still a long way to go. Like the struggles on gender or LGBT+ equality, this isn’t going to happen if only those from BAME backgrounds speak out. It isn’t a BAME problem, it’s a societal problem. It will take all of us together to make the change. 

Seeing a "face like mine" on TV can be hugely empowering for many of the communities that suffer this kind of prejudice. It shows people that they are part of society, not something left on the fringes. So bravo to the advertisers that are showcasing regular people doing regular things (who just happen to be BAME). At the end of the day, haters are always going to hate, but our job isn’t to pander to them out of fear of backlash. We must continue to show them that their views are not those held by the brands or people we work with. Their comments shouldn’t represent who we are as a nation.

Katie Mackay and Hermeti Balarin are partners at Mother

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