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PR agency thoughts: #SoWhiteProject, minorities and diversity in advertising

You don’t need to be an award-winning PR agency to have picked up on an article in The Times last weekend about the apparent decline in requests for images on Shutterstock that feature white models, part of a wider trend wherein brands are increasingly using minority groups to avoid labels like ‘homophobic’ and ‘racist’.
The likes of Lloyds, McDonalds, Tiffany, and Dove were all referenced in the piece, which also suggests this increase in minority representation may result from most major advertising agencies being based in London.
Estimates suggest that from a population of more than 8million in the capital, 47% are now ‘White British’. Other major UK cities have a similar trend, too. Manchester, for example, has 59% ‘White British’, and in Birmingham, the non-white population is higher than anywhere else- at 33%.
In 2013 Mail Online reported the UK as a whole was on course to overtake the U.S. in terms of population diversity by 2050, when it could claim the title of the West’s most mixed population (leapfrogging the Netherlands to become the most diverse country in the E.U.- for the time being at least- by next year) .
The combined populations of Greater London, Greater Manchester, and the West Midlands comes close to 15million, just under 1/4 of everyone who lives in the U.K.. This does not take into account the tens of thousands that travel into these areas for work on a daily basis from regions outside those borders. So is it not understandable that the busiest parts of the country are guiding the content of our adverts? We have written recently on the need for more regional marketing, but that’s another point.
Of course these numbers are not the most scientific. Londoners, for example, may be less than 50% ‘White British’, but that doesn’t mean less than 50% of people there are white. Meanwhile, in Manchester, more people report a British or English national identity than ‘White British’ ethnicity. In short, there are more grey areas than an E.L. James bestseller.
None of which helps us with the original question- is there now an unfair bias against non-minority models in major advertising and marketing campaigns?
According to a survey conducted by Lloyds Bank last year– one of the companies mentioned in The Times article- it really depends where you look. 19% of all ads in the UK featured minority groups when the study was carried out, and although this actually makes the advertising industry more diverse than the UK population was then (86% considered themselves ‘white’), if you look to some specific groups the problem appears woefully pronounced.
In terms of non-ethnic categories, for example, 17% of people in the UK have some form of disability, and yet 0.06% of commercials feature this group. 1/4 of parents are single, but just 0.29% of ads reflect this fact. 1.7% of Britons, or thereabouts, consider themselves to be LGBT- a figure that’s bound to be higher than reported given the stigma in some communities- and again adverts only feature this group in 0.06% of output.
With all this in mind, it’s probably no surprise that a host of major advertising and marketing agencies, alongside Channel 4, are taking part in the #SoWhiteProject, which aims to introduce more diverse images for use within advertising and social media. Whether this will place enough attention on the areas that desperately need improvement remains to be seen, but considering 65% of the public that responded to the Lloyds survey said they would feel favourable towards brands that reflect diversity, from a business perspective it’s unlikely to do much harm- albeit that’s a rather cynical way of judging things.

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