'The ad industry's dirty secret': why it's time to recast casting

Discrimination in the casting process, both in front of and behind the camera, is an issue that advertising has ignored for too long.

There is a scene from I May Destroy You, the hit BBC series created by Michaela Coel, in which the character Terry, an aspiring actress, goes on an audition for a commercial (pictured above). She recites her lines: “See me, show me, exactly like everyone else. If we show a world where every woman is seen, then girls, you’ll show us all.”

The camera cuts and the casting agent, a white woman, asks Terry, who is black: “Is that your real hair?”

“Er, no,” she says. “It’s a wig.”

The agent tells Terry that because the shot is set in a hair salon, her hair might have to be washed and dried. She continues to press her: “Do you do that to your hair? Do you ever take it off? Can we see what your hair is like?”

Terry, growing visibly uncomfortable with each question, finally answers: “Maybe not now. But another day… so I can prepare it.”

The woman dismisses Terry, who leaves knowing that the audition hasn’t gone well. She is also unsettled for another reason: what she experienced was a microaggression – defined by Columbia University Professor Derald Wing Sue as “the slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that members of marginalised groups experience in their day-to-day interactions with individuals who are often unaware that they have engaged in an offensive or demeaning way”.

The scene with Terry illustrates how difficult it can be to call out microaggressions – because they are sometimes subtle or unintentional, they can also go ignored by their perpetrators, while still leaving damages. But now, the Black Lives Matter movement is prompting a deeper examination of all forms of racial discrimination, bringing issues that often went unsaid out into the open.

Which is why, in advertising, it is time to take another look at casting. Many people who have been in front of or behind the camera have witnessed or been the subject of a story like Terry’s. In a session at Lions Live, the online event hosted by Cannes Lions in June, Alex Bennett-Grant, founder and chief executive of Amsterdam-based agency We Are Pi, said racist casting calls are “the ad industry’s dirty secret”.

He tells Campaign: “Casting is the most tangible and stark example of anti-black behaviour in the advertising creative process. Everything that we do before that moment – winning business, client relations, writing strategies, coming up with ideas – filters into that one point of who’s making it, who’s in front of the camera and who’s behind it.”

Bennett-Grant says he has encountered instances of racism in casting – sometimes coded, sometimes more explicit – every year since founding We Are Pi in 2011. Then, earlier this year as the Black Lives Matter protests took off after the killing of George Floyd in the US, he realised: “I had to talk about this.”

His first step was to conduct a survey, which he started among his WhatsApp contacts and went on to receive more than 500 responses from people across agencies, production companies and brands. The results confirmed just how widespread his own experiences were: 91% of respondents considered racial profiling to be a problem in the advertising casting process, 70% had witnessed people being excluded from ad casting because they were black, and 52% surveyed said they were shut down or ignored when they tried to take action on what they believed was racist decision-making.

Creative Equals, an organisation that promotes diversity within the creative sector, also recently conducted a survey on whether people had ever been asked to remove a character from a script due to their ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, class or religion. Nine out of 10 respondents said yes, with one person commenting anonymously: “We had to add more white people to the mix of ads because my business director said it was ‘way too black’.”

“Every agency in London will have experienced situations like this at some point in recent months and years,” Xavier Rees, chief executive of Havas London and Havas Helia, says. “It has been the great unspoken taboo that still happens, but no-one’s quite clear on how to deal with it and therefore it goes undealt with.”

In many respects, the representation of black people in advertising has greatly progressed since the advent of the medium. In the early 20th century, images of black people in ads were primarily related to slavery and service, according to London’s Black Cultural Archives. Two such persistent examples are Mars-owned Uncle Ben’s, which said in June it would “evolve” its mascot of a black rice grower, and US breakfast foods brand Aunt Jemima, which finally promised this year to retire its long-criticised logo and name based on the racist stereotype of a “mammy” figure.

Early advertising also perpetuated derogatory ideas such as equating blackness with being “unclean”, as seen in a Pears Soap ad from 1903 that showed a white child cleaning a black child. At the height of the British Empire, another common stereotype depicted in ads was that of the “savage” African native. Over the years, more positive portrayals began to appear, such as a 1976 Boeing press ad for business travellers that featured a black model, or the early 2000s Halifax campaign starring the singing-and-dancing bank employee Howard Brown.

Imbalances behind the camera

More recently, diverse casts in ads have become quite common, from the young black star of the school nativity in Sainsbury’s 2018 Christmas ad to the black family who discover unexpected perks in Tesco Mobile’s July campaign. However, some of this progress is masking other biases and inequalities long ingrained in the advertising creative process, including the types of roles in which people are cast and imbalances behind the camera.

“There are definitely more [diverse] people in front of the camera, but that hasn't necessarily changed behind the camera. You can make it look as if you’re doing proper change but it’s not proper change unless it goes through the whole industry,” Bayo Furlong, co-director of The Eye Casting, says.

His twin brother and business partner, Jody Furlong, adds: “It’s only in this moment that people are stopping to think about the systemic change that needs to happen, not just the cosmetic. That will include not just making sure we have a nice range of people in front of the camera, but also having black photographers, directors and creatives, who can create things organically so it's not just the box-ticking exercise that it often can be.”

The Eye, which opened in 2006 with a specialty in street casting, has been part of a shift towards “more egalitarian” casting in advertising, Jody Furlong says. Since working on campaigns including Dove’s “Real beauty”, the brothers say “diversity” has become the number-one buzzword in commercial casting, with more high-street brands such as Topshop and Primark using a wider range of models.

Dove: its "Real beauty" campaign used a wider range of models

Yet many of The Eye’s models still often go on shoots and find they are the only black or ethnic-minority person there, which can lead to situations where they feel uncomfortable, misunderstood or excluded. Jody Furlong says: “It’s those little things, like no-one knows how to do your hair or make-up. You don’t want to be the person who says something and causes an issue, but the girl sitting next to you doesn’t even have to think about those things.”

Selma Nicholls, founder of casting agency Looks Like Me, recalls a similar incident last year when she was on set for a commercial featuring a young black girl. The director asked the stylist to do the girl’s hair in a “bed head style”, but the stylist did not know how to treat the girl’s afro. Nicholls had to step in and point out: “A girl wouldn’t go to bed with her hair in an afro like that – we would tie her hair up in some way. It wouldn't look real to wake up in the morning with her hair out.”

Situations like that are all too common in productions and illustrate how a lack of diversity among crews can lead to inauthentic representations on screen, Nicholls says.

She herself is well aware of how on-screen depictions can affect people. A former theatre producer, Nicholls launched Looks Like Me in 2015 after her three-year-old daughter began questioning her identity, with comments such as “Mummy, I want straight hair” or “I don’t want to be brown”.

“I looked around at ads and magazines and realised that the little black girl wasn’t visible. We’re attracted to what we see in mainstream content and none of it looked like her,” Nicholls says. “I wanted to make sure that my little girl and all girls and boys who are from underrepresented groups feel that we see them.”

Looks Like Me has since worked with clients including Tesco, Next, Sainsbury’s, Amazon Prime Video and Warner Music Group, and most recently cast children who appeared in Beyoncé’s 2020 film Black is King. Nicholls has observed a “big shift in casting” since starting her company, but she thinks more business leaders should follow the example of Beyonce, who reportedly walked out of a meeting with Reebok due to a lack of diversity in the room.

“I would be concerned if you’re creating briefs for diverse ads and the team making the decisions is not diverse,” she says. “That’s when mistakes and stereotypes can be made.”

Even with more diversity of casts, advertising is still guilty of pigeonholing people or reinforcing stereotypes. A 2018 study commissioned by Lloyds Banking Group, “Ethnicity in Advertising: Reflecting Modern Britain”, found that although black, Asian and minority-ethnic people are better represented in advertising than at any other time in history, they often appear in supporting, rather than leading, roles.

“The best inclusive advertising is about casting people in lead roles but also casting them creatively in roles – making sure people of colour are cast in roles representative of the whole spectrum of society,” Bennett-Grant says.

Years ago, The Eye received a brief for a commercial that would feature women with a range of appearances – brunettes, blondes, redheads and so on. When Jody Furlong pointed out that the script was missing a black woman, “they picked one black girl and they made her a DJ.”

The Eye, which opened in 2006 with a specialty in street casting, has been part of a shift towards "more egalitarian" casting in advertising (Toby McVittie)

Bayo Furlong adds: “You get a lot of black people who are ‘cool’ – you become the DJ or the rapper. It will be good when we get to the point where we can just be boring.”

The “cool” black person is one common cliché seen on screen. Another is highlighted in Bayo Furlong’s recent discussion with another casting director, who asked him: “When was the last time we saw a brief that didn’t have a mixed-race couple in it?”

In a similar vein, Sarah Jenkins, managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi London, observes: “When was the last time you saw a mixed-race family [in an ad] where it was the mum who was black? So often it’s the dad who’s black – what is that about? Do we as an industry or as a country feel more comfortable with that? That is not acceptable.”

It is imperative that the ad industry examines not just who but how people are cast, Jenkins adds: “Who are we actually seeing and what stories are they getting to tell? As soon as you start asking those questions, we start looking less good as an industry. Representation is about authentic narratives.”

Colour-blind casting v colour-conscious casting

In film, TV and theatre, two main schools of thought have emerged about how to consider ethnicity or race in casting. “Colour-blind casting” means race is not specified or overtly considered during the casting process. Director Armando Iannucci said he used this method in his 2020 film adaptation of David Copperfield, starring Dev Patel (pictured, left, Alamy) – the first time that an actor of colour has played Charles Dickens’ titular character on screen.

But colour-blind casting is not without its flaws. Take the example of this year’s BBC adaptation of Normal People, in which all three actors of colour were cast as unlikeable characters – the most notable being the Swedish photographer whom protagonist Marianne dates. In the novel, the photographer is described as “Scandinavian-looking” with blonde hair, but the directors cast a black man to play one of the most villainous and abusive roles – an oversight that could reinforce negative images of black men. Journalist Maz Do wrote of the casting choice in Gal-Dem: “Representation does not mean indiscriminately casting people of colour into whatever subsidiary roles are available… True representation involves a lot of self-interrogation: why write this character, why write this story?”

Another approach that some advocate for is “colour-conscious casting,” which does take ethnicity into account and considers its implications for characters and storylines. Arts journalist Diep Tran told The Guardian in August: “Colour consciousness tells directors, producers and casting directors to make diversity part of their consideration when casting. It asks them to make sure they see a wide spectrum of people, not just the people who happen to make it into the room.”

In a Guardian column about the lack of diversity in TV, historian and broadcaster David Olusoga explains: “To be colour-blind is to be blind to reality, to the fact that in our society skin colour can dictate life chances and limit opportunities. It is also to refuse to acknowledge that people of colour have different experiences to their white colleagues, and that those experiences equip us with different perspectives and mean we have different stories to tell – stories that are valuable, if listened to.”

The differences in casting approaches are nuanced and much-debated, but these are the kinds of complicated discussions that the ad industry needs to have too. Bennett-Grant says he was most taken aback in his survey by the finding that people were often “shut down” when they tried to address casting biases. Part of the problem might be in time, budget and client pressures that create barriers to speaking out, he says.

“In the heat of a meeting, there are often two things at play: you’re running it very fast, and it could be at the end of a long process so you haven’t got much time. Plus, race is a loaded topic. Those two things are in opposition to each other,” Bennett-Grant explains. “Often it will be a junior or midweight person making these incremental decisions, but with the pressures of their bosses and stakeholders and local markets. The idea that you’ll put your hand up and say, ‘hey, have we thought about race representation here?’ – that’s a big thing to stop the machine.”

This is why companies need to give employees “permission upfront” to start difficult conversations, Bennett-Grant argues. To really tackle biases at all levels, there needs to be institutional change, not just call-outs on social media, he adds.

“You can call people out on social media, which is good to an extent because it keeps things moving, but we also need corporate environments to do what they do best: create forums and processes and ways of working,” he says.

“Force conversations earlier”

Publicis Groupe, the owner of agencies including Saatchi & Saatchi, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Leo Burnett, is attempting this through its group-wide Embrace Change initiative, which will include an apprenticeship programme for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the collection of ethnicity pay data, and a charter that sets out the behaviours expected of clients, employees, suppliers and partners. Jenkins says this will “force conversations earlier. Critically, it means that when there is a situation, you're able to have an uncomfortable conversation because there’s a shared standard you’re reverting back to.”

Leo Burnett instituted a casting policy to promote diverse talent, and BBH has conducted training on how to tackle unconscious bias and microaggressions. “What we’re dealing with at the moment is a wake-up call of everyone having to review and unlearn everything,” BBH London chief executive Karen Martin says. “We need to make people feel comfortable to be able to say, ‘what you said there wasn’t right’. We need to create workplaces where it’s a learning culture, not a cancel culture.”

Havas London is also re-examining its corporate culture with its “Press Pause” anti-discrimination intiative, which it has used since 2019 but made open to the industry this year. The policy allows employees to “pause” an uncomfortable or problematic encounter before taking next steps, and it was partly inspired by a previous casting incident.

Rees says Press Pause is “a living, breathing thing” that will continue to evolve, but it is “as much about protecting our people as addressing the issue of casting appropriately. I hope people feel more protected and confident, and better armed to know what to do in that situation.”

He also challenges “the whole notion of clients being the problem”, adding that many of Havas’ clients have embraced and implemented Press Pause guidelines. At BBH, Martin says this is also a conversation they are having with clients, pointing to examples such as Tesco, which has embraced more diversity in recent campaigns including “Food love stories”. With the supermarket and other brands including Barclays, the agency is also looking to include more groups who are underrepresented in advertising, such as disabled people.

“There’s no going back,” Martin says. “We’ve all got to go ahead now and do the right thing that should have been done a long time ago.”

The Furlongs point out that casting “is not solely a black issue”, too. LGBT+ and Southeast Asian people are two more examples of groups who are often stereotyped or rarely seen in ads.

But Black Lives Matter has made it “a lot easier to flag something up”, Bayo Furlong says. His brother Jody adds: “This moment has made us all go, it’s not acceptable. We understand what the industry is doing – trying to sell things – but we’re going to have to come up with a different way of doing this.”

For Bennett-Grant’s part, he says he feels “huge relief” that he can now have more open discussions and challenge long-standing issues. But he is also asking for tangible action. That is why he created the Before You Shoot pledge, which asks signees to stop anti-black practices such as actively selecting only light-skinned or mixed-race casts, blaming racist feedback on local markets, requesting non-black edits for different markets and retouching skin to be lighter in final edits.

“Our responsibility is to recognise that we are one of the loudest voices in popular culture,” he says. “Therefore, what are we going to show? The society we see is the society that gets perpetuated.”

Bennett-Grant was thinking about this topic – what we see, and its influence on how we see ourselves – one recent evening while reading to his 18-month-old daughter. Her favourite book is Amazing Grace, which tells the story of a young black girl called Grace who loves to act out stories. When her school stages the play Peter Pan, she puts her hand up to be the main character. Some of her classmates tell her “You can’t be called Peter. That’s a boy’s name” and “You can’t be Peter Pan. He wasn’t black.”

“But Grace kept her hand up,” author Mary Hoffman writes. In the end, she goes to the audition and gets the part. The last image in the book is of Grace in a bright green, glittering costume, playing the leading role at last.

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