Work & Wellbeing Marketing & the Marginalized ASA

ASA project finds more can be done to improve racial representation in advertising


By Ellen Ormesher | Reporter

February 3, 2022 | 5 min read

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has published the findings of a major project that looks at the extent to which the portrayal of race or ethnicity in UK ads might give rise to harm or serious offense, including by reinforcing negative stereotypes.


Fifa 21’s campaign last year won the C4 Diversity in Advertising Award

When assessing the extent to which race and ethnicity are represented in ads, participants believed that advertising had become more inclusive and diverse in recent years. However, it was still felt that more can be done to improve representation and avoid types of portrayal that have the potential to cause harm or serious offense.

The findings, therefore, strengthen the ASA’s understanding of representation in ads, and will likely inform how it assists advertisers and their agencies to avoid inadvertent harm or offense through their portrayals of race or ethnicity.

The project itself involved commissioning extensive qualitative and quantitative research (conducted by COG Research) consisting of 22 focus groups and a survey of over 2,000 people, including over 1,000 Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic (BAME) participants. The research focuses on the portrayal and representation of various communities in the UK and found that, although not seen as influential as education or employment in forming preconceptions of people from racial and ethnic groups, advertising can play a part.

What harms can racial stereotyping in ads perpetuate?

  • Reinforcement of existing stereotypes: This was often described as ‘always showing us the same way.’ The repeated use of certain portrayals has the potential to reinforce how society views people from minority groups. For example, portraying certain minority racial or ethnic groups in stereotypical roles (such as shopkeepers or taxi drivers) or possessing stereotypical characteristics (depicted through behavior, accents, hairstyles or dress).

  • Creating new stereotypes: Participants suggested portrayals have emerged that can paint a one-dimensional picture of people from BAME groups, particularly around the depiction of family life and relationships (for example, participants spoke about the lack of Black families shown) and people’s appearance (Black and Asian participants felt that lighter-skinned people from their ethnic groups were more likely to feature in ads).

  • Perpetuating or reinforcing racist attitudes and behaviors: Ads that depicted behavior or other factors associated with racism, even where the advertiser was challenging negative stereotypes, were felt by participants to pose a risk of evoking past trauma related to their race or ethnicity and reinforced prejudice.

What else does the research find?

  • Ethnic minority groups were almost three times more likely to feel under-represented or not represented at all in ads (66%) than white respondents (23%), and around half of the participants from ethnic minority backgrounds said they were not portrayed accurately.

  • There were also portrayals of ethnic minority groups in ads where it was felt the use of humor was perceived to be at their expense (39%), followed by showing groups as outsiders (37%).

  • Half of all respondents felt ads showing discrimination toward particular ethnic groups (51%) or showing ethnic groups in a degrading way (50%) had the potential to cause harm. And certain portrayals relating to group characteristics, culture, sexualization and religion were also felt to have the potential to cause harm by creating a set of limiting beliefs about a person from a particular group.

While there were often varying perspectives on representation and portrayal across individual groups, there was widespread agreement from participants across all groups that advertising in 21st-century Britain should be inclusive of different racial and ethnic groups, both in terms of portrayal and representation.

ASA chief executive Guy Parker says of the project: “Our research shows that people generally welcome greater diversity in advertising, and that care needs to be taken in how people from minority racial and ethnic groups are portrayed in ads.

“The findings of our work allow us and the advertising industry to better understand the impact of particular portrayals on these audience groups, helping to minimize the potential for harm or serious offense to be caused.”

Work & Wellbeing Marketing & the Marginalized ASA

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