As all good scientists (and science fanboys like myself) know, a single data point doesn't tell you anything. Even with two data points, you still don't know much. But sometimes, it's enough to make you wonder.
That's where we find ourselves today when it comes to this industry's attitude toward black people in advertisements. And we want your help.
First let's review the evidence.
As you may have read, actor John Boyega has quit as an ambassador for luxury fragrance brand Jo Malone after discovering that the brand re-shot an ad that was all about him, only with a Chinese actor for the China market.
The brand admitted to "a mistake in the local execution" of the campaign. But that doesn't actually explain anything. The bottom line is, someone thought that one of the top stars of one of the most successful film franchises in history wasn't good enough to represent the brand in China (although his story apparently was). Why? What was the thought process there?
And there's this: Can you think of an example where a white star was replaced in this way?
The strange Boyega tale seems like an echo of the exclusive story my colleague Jessica Goodfellow broke in June. In that case, a black calligraphy artist got removed—allegedly at the last minute—from a campaign that British American Tobacco (BAT) was about to launch in Japan. You can read all about the incident, which we learned about from an anonymous leaker, in "Why has British American Tobacco removed a black artist from its Glo campaign?".
We never really got a satisfactory answer to the question asked in the headline, by the way. The companies involved said the content was in "further testing to ensure it is portrayed in the best way to resonate with its intended audiences". As far as we're aware, the calligraphy artist's story has not been released.
What you can do
So, two examples of black people being removed. One we could easily write off. Two makes it a bit harder to do so. Personally, I think there's ample evidence of racist attitudes in this region (see the sad list of examples from our archive below), and it's hard to imagine that doesn't percolate into brand and agency decisions.
But how bad is it? In what markets is the issue the most pronounced? What is being done about it, if anything? What role should brands and agencies play? To answer these questions and more, we need more evidence. So we're asking for your help. Let's talk about the APAC industry's attitudes toward not only black people but all people of colour.
First, I ask you to answer the quick poll question that popped up when you loaded this page (just refresh if you dismissed it). [Update: The poll has now closed, see the results below.]
Second and more importantly, we want to hear from you, whether you work at an agency, on the brand side, or in production. Have you seen racist attitudes influencing creative decisions, including casting? Have you seen a brand shy away from putting a person of colour into a campaign because they fear their audience won't react well? Have you had to fight against stereotyped storylines? Whatever it is, and no matter the colour of the people in question, please share.
We're willing to offer anonymity to sources on these sensitive issues. You can reach out to me or any of our editors directly, or you can use our feedback form. In the latter case, you can remain completely anonymous—even from us. However, please know that if you do, it may make it harder for us to actually publish anything from what you tell us. We follow standards that require us to verify facts, and that can be difficult or impossible if we can't contact you or verify who you are.
As mentioned above, the BAT story came to us via an anonymous source who was troubled by the decision. If not for that person, we wouldn't have heard about it at all. As professionals in Western markets start to grapple with this issue, we in APAC should too. Racism is insidious. But together we can expose it.
Archive of shame
We don't have to look hard to know that racism is an underlying issue in the region. Here's just a few examples from our archives.
- Yesterday: Hits and misses: Malaysia Day campaigns from bad to better
- Jun 2, 2020: Malaysian influencer draws ire for racist Instagram comments
- Jul 10, 2020: Singapore’s top influencer investigated for racist tweets, use of N-word
- Jun 2, 2020: L'Oreal faces backlash for Black Lives Matter post
- Feb 25, 2020: Singaporean brand releases offensive ad, berates users for complaining
- Jul 29, 2019: Mediacorp, Havas apologise for 'brownface' ad in Singapore
- Apr 8, 2019: Burger King apologises for "insensitive" chopsticks ad
- Nov 22, 2018: Chinese government cancels Dolce & Gabbana Shanghai show over "racist” campaign
- Jul 28, 2017: Top 5 politically incorrect ads (contains the single most racist ad we've ever seen)
- Jun 8, 2017: Watsons Malaysia apologises for ‘blackface’ ad
- Sep 8, 2016: Air China says racist travel tips were 'misinterpreted'
Matthew Miller is managing editor of Campaign Asia-Pacific.