Today was my first day back in the office after the Christmas break. Well, in fact, it was the first day back in my living room after my Christmas staycation. It's always the most miserable - I mean joyful - day of the year. But then something unusual happened. The phone rang and a gentleman who I have never spoken to before, but who had read my article about racism in advertising, started to tell me about an ad he'd seen in Monday's Times newspaper. He had also emailed me a copy, which is illustrating this post.

The gentleman is black, and told me that he found the ad to be discriminatory and offensive. He confirmed that he had already lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority, but having seen my article, he wanted to bring it to my attention, and I'm grateful to him.

In case it's not clear, the headline states "Let's keep making space to help stop the spread." The body copy then says "Around 1 in 3 people with Covid 19 don't have any symptoms, but can still pass it on."

The imagery shows two mums standing at the school gates. The woman facing the camera is black, and has some kind of green cloud emanating from her mouth and nostrils, which is presumably intended to represent the coronavirus. 

The gentleman caller was clearly deeply and seriously offended by this imagery. His reaction should be the determining factor. It is hardly for me to tell him what he should or should not find offensive.  He said in his email that the image of the black lady spreading Covid is discriminatory.

Before writing this post, I sought the views of a couple of my partners who are members of the BAME community to get their point of view.  While they assumed there was no intention to attend, and were not as offended as the complainant, they certainly thought that the ad is ill-judged. My first thought was that 20% of NHS staff is from the BAME community, so if you want to portray BAME people in a Covid related ad, it might be more accurate to show them fighting the disease, not spreading it! My colleagues also pointed out the BAME community has been particularly hard hit by Covid, not just medically, but also economically and socially. We know, for example, that people from ethnic minorities have been physically attacked by thugs who have accused them of 'spreading' the disease. Furthermore, I am advised that there has been a particular challenge in getting the "space" message through to members of the BAME community, who are often more tactile than the British are traditionally.  

Perhaps there was no racist intent behind the ad, but there is no denying that there must have been a creative decision to show the black woman spreading the disease, not the white woman. Who made that decision? Why?  

And even if the ad wasn't deliberately racist, it was pretty stupid. This is evidenced by the fact that the ad was published in the papers on Monday morning, following the government's directive that primary schools must re-open, only for the government to decide to shut them again on Tuesday. 

If you want to lodge a complaint to the ASA about this ad, click here

Originally Published by GALA, January 2021

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