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ASA reports on the potential harm of racial and ethnic stereotyping in ads

The Advertising Standards Authority ("ASA") has released its report on the potential harm of racial and ethnic stereotyping in ads (the "Report").

Background

On 14 June 2019, the Committee of Advertising Practice ("CAP") introduced a new rule in relation to harmful gender stereotyping. The rule applies to broadcast and non-broadcast media advertisements (including online and social media ads) and states that marketing communications “must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious widespread offence”. The ASA took swift action on upholding complaints on the basis of the new rule (see our blog for more information).

Now the ASA is turning its attention to harmful racial and ethnic stereotyping.

The current rules specify that special care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, but the rules do not specifically address racial or ethnic stereotypes.

The Report

The Report follows the project which was recently concluded by the ASA that had the aim of: (1) analysing the key themes concerning racial and ethnic stereotypes in ads; and (2) establishing whether and to what extent those stereotypes may contribute to real world harms.

The project involved commissioning qualitative and quantitative research from COG Research, which consisted of 22 focus groups and a survey of over 2,000 people, over half of which included Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic ("BAME") participants. The research focused on the portrayal and representation of various communities within the UK and found that, while not seen as influential as education, employment, the media or politics, advertising can play a part in shaping preconceptions of people from racial and ethnic groups.

Overall, the research identified three broad potential harms that could arise through portrayals of race and ethnicity:

  1. Reinforcing existing stereotypes, which was often described by participants as "always showing us the same way" – for example, portraying certain minority racial or ethnic groups in stereotypical roles or possessing stereotypical characteristics;
  2. Creating new stereotypes – portrayals have emerged that can paint a one-dimensional picture of people from BAME groups, particularly around the depiction of family life and relationships; and
  3. Perpetuating or reinforcing racist attitudes and behaviours – ads that depicted behaviour associated with racism were felt by participants to pose a risk of evoking past trauma and reinforced prejudice.

The research also suggested that these three harms could arise even where an advertiser is trying to challenge negative stereotypes.

When determining the extent to which race and ethnicity are represented in ads, participants in the research believed that advertising had become more inclusive and diverse in recent years. However, participants still identified the need to improve representation and avoid types of portrayal that have the potential to cause harm or serious offence. For example:

  • BAME groups are almost three times more likely to feel under-represented or not represented at all in advertising (66%) than white consumers (23%);
  • Around half of BAME participants said when they are represented in ads, they are not portrayed accurately, rising from 49% among men to 57% among women and of those participants, a similar proportion feel people from their ethnic group are negatively stereotyped; and
  • 58% of BAME respondents either agree or strongly agree that ads showing people from their ethnic group impact how society sees them.

The ASA concluded that the advertising industry is influential and that representation and portrayal matters. However, the ASA also commented that the "fear of getting it wrong" could be a barrier to featuring people from minority and diverse backgrounds.

Next Steps

The Report identified a number of areas for further action. One of the actions is that the ASA has asked CAP and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice ("BCAP") to consider the evidence and explore whether guidance would be helpful to encourage creative treatments that challenge or reject potentially harmful stereotypes, and diminish issues arising from cumulative effects.

At the end of 2022, the ASA will also conduct a review of its decisions in cases related to racial and ethnic stereotyping and present its findings to the ASA Council, CAP and BCAP to ensure that they are "drawing the line in the right place and proactively identifying newly emerging areas of concern".

It remains unclear as to whether a new rule will be introduced which specifically tackles racial and ethnic stereotyping. It will therefore remain to be seen as to whether this leads to the ASA taking a robust stance against racial and ethnic stereotyping as it did when it added the new rule in relation to gender stereotyping.  In the meantime, the ASA has stated that it will present its findings to the ad industry and deliver training and advice to assist advertisers where necessary.

Co-authored by Kristina Holm.

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