Insights Advertising Standards Authority publishes report on racial and ethnic stereotyping in ads


The ASA has published the findings of a major project that looked at the extent to which the portrayal of race or ethnicity in UK ads might give rise to harm or serious offence, including by reinforcing adverse stereotypes.

The ASA says that a key strand of the project 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 focused 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.

The research identified three broad potential harms that could arise from adverse portrayals of race and ethnicity:

i) 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, e.g., portraying certain minority racial or ethnic groups in stereotypical roles (such as shopkeepers or taxi drivers) or possessing stereotypical characteristics (depicted through behaviour, accents, hairstyles or dress);

ii) 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, e.g., 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); and

iii) perpetuating or reinforcing racist attitudes and behaviours: ads that depicted behaviour 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.

When assessing the extent to which race and ethnicity are represented in ads, participants believed advertising had become more inclusive and diverse in recent years. However, it was still felt that more could be done to improve representation and avoid types of portrayal that have the potential to cause harm or serious offence. For example, BAME 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 BAME groups said they are not portrayed accurately.

Portrayals of BAME groups in ads most likely to cause offence to BAME participants related to the use of humour perceived to be at their expense (39%), followed by showing groups as outsiders (37%). Half of all respondents felt ads showing discrimination towards particular ethnic groups (51%) or showing ethnic groups in a degrading way (50%) had the potential to cause harm. Further, certain portrayals relating to group characteristics, culture, sexualisation 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.

The ASA’s review included a comprehensive literature review (supported by a public call for evidence) and a review of relevant complaints received since 2013, both of which are published alongside the research.

The ASA has now asked CAP and BCAP to consider the evidence with a view to producing guidance to support advertisers’ compliance with related rules around harm, offence and social responsibility. The ASA says that it will in due course present the findings to the ad industry and deliver training and advice to assist advertisers when necessary. To read the ASA’s press release in full and for a link to the report and related documents, click here.