Racism in casting: we have a responsibility to end this nonsense

The industry needs to take a good, hard look at itself after Jo Malone removed John Boyega from its Chinese ad.

Jo Malone describes its decision to remove actor John Boyega from the campaign he conceived, directed and starred in as a "misstep". To the rest of the world, the move, whereby the Star Wars star was replaced with actor Liu Haoran for the Chinese market, is a marketing fail of epic proportions. We have, however, been here many times before and, for me, the story proves that in my 25-plus years in advertising, things may have changed, but not enough.

When I started out in the industry in the 1990s I worked for an agency that had a certain coconut-flavoured rum brand as a client. The agency shot a commercial for the brand in Barbados showing young people partying on the beach. When the client saw the first cut they remarked that there were too many black people in the ad, and I quote: "Black people aren't aspirational enough."

The language used around casting people of colour in commercials may not be as overtly racist as that any more, but the sentiment is the same. Just a few years ago, when I was working at a production company, we were working on the casting brief for a campaign for a European skincare brand.

The reference materials featured a pale, mixed-race model with freckles and curly auburn hair. When the director and I proposed a diverse range of models featuring multiple ethnicities for the ad, we were told that the client had indicated that the mixed-race model would be as "dark as they wanted to go". Hmmmm.

Racist bias shows up in casting all the time in advertising, and now that this incident with John Boyega has shone a light on the issue, the industry needs to take a good hard look at itself.

Here is an unbelievably talented British actor who is hailed as the next big thing in Hollywood. He is also a prominent activist who had the world at its feet when his speech at a Black Lives Matter protest went viral. However, when it comes to advertising, his status, talent, fame and all of his achievements still didn't cut it for this global brand.

This behaviour would be bad enough if it were coming from a small advertiser, but Jo Malone is a luxury brand owned by global giant Estée Lauder. The brand's PR team can apologise and make excuses all they like, but this would not have happened with a white actor.

The message the brand and the corporation behind it is sending out to the world is precisely the same as that old rum brand client in the 1990s – black people aren't aspirational enough for some. It wasn't true then, and it still isn't.

We so rarely see people of colour as brand ambassadors. By creating the campaign himself, using his personal story and featuring his family, as well as the Peckham neighbourhood he grew up in, Boyega showed how invested he was in the role from the outset. It makes it all the more shocking that the brand saw fit to not only recast and reshoot it but not even to consult him beforehand.

After quitting as ambassador, Boyega had this riposte for Jo Malone: "I don't have time for this nonsense." Jo Malone, hopefully, will have learned a hard lesson, but this story is not just confined to one brand. Racism in casting continues to be widespread in our industry and we all have a responsibility to end this nonsense.

Melody Sylvester is head of film at Engine Creative.

Editor's note: Jo Malone, the woman who founded the perfume brand that bears her name, is no longer involved in the business. She has criticised the decision to remove Boyega from the campaign in China. 

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