Advertising Diversity & Inclusion Racism

How can brands avoid whitewashing in ads for Asian audiences? Pixerf thinks it has the solution


By Shawn Lim, Reporter, Asia Pacific

May 2, 2018 | 5 min read

Hollywood’s struggles with whitewashing over the years has been well documented and in advertising land, brands and agencies have also found it hard to produce commercials and advertisements that promote both gender and racial diversity.

While the movie Black Panther proved to be a watershed moment for Hollywood, both in the media and the black community in 2018, adland has yet to found a similar breakthrough.

Infamous gaffes around the world include Dove’s ad that showed a black woman turning white after using its lotion and H&M using the image of a black child model in a hoodie featuring the quote ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’.

In Asia Pacific, Chinese laundry detergent company Qiaobi copped flak for releasing a commercial featuring a Chinese woman putting a black man into a washing machine, before a whiter man emerges. In Singapore, Mediacorp-owned Toggle was criticsed for making a Chinese actor apply black makeup on his face in order to play an Afro-American character on a show.

While brands and agencies have recognised that changing the diversity conversation starts in the workplace, it remains to be seen if this is a long-term solution.

Seeking to push the conversation forward, one-year-old Singapore-based visual marketplace Pixerf, which is still in beta mode, aims to build up a community of photographers to sell unique Asian-centric content, like stock photos and videos, to brands on its website and mobile application.

While addressing the lack of gender and racial diversity in ads targeting Asian audiences is a key priority, Pixerf also wants to address the issue of authentic Asian people, landscapes and culture being misrepresented or overshadowed by cookie cutter stock photography, Sa’at Ismail, founder and chief executive of Pixerf tells The Drum.

Sa’at points out that whitewashing happens when brands who are looking to invest in unique Asian perspectives, are unable to find authentic, high-quality, Asia-centric visual content. This leads to respectable brands using stock photos that are unoriginal, uninspiring and unrepresentative of the dynamic and vibrant APAC region, as they do not capture cultural nuances in gender and racial diversity.

“We have experienced this first-hand,” Sa’at explains, in reference to Pixerf co-founder and chief financial officer Michele Lee, who like him, used to work in a creative agency. “We also hear the same from the brands we are working with. When visual content is not relevant or relatable to a brand’s target audience, there will be a negative impact on campaign performance.”

According to Lee, one of the ways Pixerf promotes cultural, gender and racial diversity on its platform is through Missions, its crowdsourcing initiative, where a creative agency or brand can submit a short brief through the platform with photo requirements, visual inspirations, the prize the organisation is giving out for each selected photo, and the photo submission deadline.

For example, during the International Women’s Day, Miss Earth Singapore ran a Mission titled ‘Championing Women’ and the range of photo submissions from the Pixerf community consisted of visual artists from across 20 countries, depicted women across all walks of life as a force in Asia and the world today in the boardroom, in the office, in the streets and with nature.

Miss Earth Singapore then selected from a variety of authentic photos to promote its beauty pageant and enhance public awareness on the environmental crisis and challenges we are facing, ensuring relevance and relatability to its different target audience segments.

“Apart from diversity in depiction and photos, Pixerf aims to engage more female photographers to join our community. On International Women’s Day, we worked with Amrita Chandradas, an award-winning documentary photographer and one of our brand ambassadors, to take over our Instagram handle for 24 hours,” explains Lee. “During the takeover, Amrita shared photos and stories depicting her take on beauty and strength in women. Our goal was to inspire more female photographers to come forward and showcase their unique perspectives and work.”

“Ultimately, we hope to bring about positive change to the ecosystem through our community, our Marketplace and Missions, empowering photographers to play an active role in shaping Asia’s photography industry, Asia’s visual narrative, and the social causes we care about,” she adds.

Moving beyond just providing stock photos, Pixerf will expand into vector images and stock videos to fight whitewashing in ads from all angles when it moves to beta 2.0, scheduled for June 2018.

It will also continue to actively support the gig economy in Singapore and around APAC because as a team of visual artists and professional photographers, Pixerf understand their passion, hopes and expectations and believe that photography can be a viable career option, explains Sa'at.

“Our platform welcomes all visual artists – commercial, artistic, documentary, social media, hobbyist etc. They can share their photos on our marketplace, interact with and receive recognition from other community members, and earn royalties when their photos are purchased," he says.

In addition, Pixerf will run offline events that bring together Asia’s most prolific professional photographers and our community members to share tips and best practices, and exchange ideas around the latest photography trends.

Advertising Diversity & Inclusion Racism

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