Welcome. This blog might be either pioneering or wrong-headed since it is a development no one else seems to have noted. As ever, I would value your comments.
(Sadly my recent numberings got confused with two # 49s, so I have left out # 51 to try to restore order)
Black People in tv Adverts
I have previously made an occasional reference to what seems to be an unusually large number of black people appearing in television adverts. Surprisingly I have not seen it referred to anywhere else. But seems to me that it does rate as a significant and important. Or am I making too much of it?
The first point is that it is certainly disproportionate. About 5% of our population is black. I have not counted numbers in tv adverts (surely some researcher must be doing this somewhere) and I don’t watch a vast amount of tv, but the proportion appearing in adverts seems to me to be much higher than that. I don’t think it is just my confirmation bias that inclines me to see the proportion is around at least one third of all tv adverts featuring black people.
It seems to me unlikely that this is just an attempt to strengthen the reach of advertisements into the minds and hearts of black purchasers. As a niche market black people have far less potential and spending power than, say, South Asians but our tv screens are not filled with South Asian actors providing the human interest in adverts. The reason for including black actors at such a high level seems to me to be saying something about how advertisers now read the attitudes and choices of the overall, substantially white (85%?) national community. That is, that for most viewers seeing black people in adverts creates a feel-good factor. They are telling us that we are part of an ethnically diverse, tolerant, progressive and harmonious society. I think it is significant that most black people featured in adverts are ‘normal’, such that there are fewer ‘cute’ black people, like the round-spectacled guy who used to be in Abbey National adverts (if my memory is correct). Certainly, adverts seem to feature a disproportionate number of ethnically mixed couples, and the men are handsome and the women are attractive, but overall these are people we are expected to respond to positively, be glad that they are around, and so feel a certain glow of satisfaction that this is how our society is. If black people feature much more than South Asians, then that may be because black people are seen as less outside mainstream popular culture, especially through strong representation in sport, entertainment and music; and, somewhat related to that, are generally regarded as much sexier and good to look at.
It is, therefore, saying something notable about our society – that we are glad about being multi-ethnic. I would see the shift towards accepting footballers taking the knee (when before the lifting of lockdown measures on stadiums it was feared there could be a divisive and polarising push-back) making the same point. By contrast, my impression (which could well be wrong) is that advertisers have also experimented with featuring same-sex couples, again to give a sense that in responding to the product you are showing yourself to be tolerant and progressive, but that in this case the purchase on potential purchasers has not been strong enough to encourage development of the initiative (at present).
The importance of the high frequency of black people in adverts of course needs weighing. Advertisments invite viewers into imaginary and idealised worlds. They make no reference to the discrimination and racism, especially in not obvious ways, that black people experience, nor do they feature the significant number of people who for a variety of reasons feel deeply alienated from the comfortable worlds portrayed in adverts. In this respect the significance of a high level of black people appearing in adverts should not be overplayed. It does not mean that we are living in a ‘colour-blind’ or ‘post racial’ society.
Pushing against an over-optimistic take on things is the evidence featured in Eric Kaufmann’s massive demographic study ‘Whiteshift’ (2018) that white people still tend to settle away from minority ethnic populations. ‘As the urban West gets more diverse, the finger increasingly points to the white majority as the engine of segregation. White majorities are retreating to places where they are relatively concentrated’ (p 396). The easy diversity featured in adverts does not necessarily translate into comfort with large scale diversity in locale.
But the adverts do say something. In particular, they are markedly different from twenty years ago (indeed possibly even over the two years since the death of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter). They do point to a shift in the national aspiration to be consciously and deliberately a multi-ethnic society. The change may be somewhat superficial, but superficial changes have the potential to lead on to more deep-seated, better informed and realistic attitudes for change. The drop in the level of unease over ethnically mixed marriages from 50% twenty years ago to 9% today has been charted. Though the level of ethnic diversity featured in tv adverts has not been charted my guess is that it follows a similar trajectory. People are much more accepting and positive about living in an ethnically mixed society.
Another pertinent comparison may be with climate change. We have also seen a marked rise in people taking climate change seriously; again with advertisers presenting themselves as in full agreement. In both cases these professions may be superficial, but popular attitudes do strengthen the possibility of policy change and the public’s readiness to accept demanding changes in policy and expenditure.
In short, the changing nature of tv adverts should encourage cautious optimism over greater racial fairness and equality in our society, even though they fail to recognise the complexity of the issues and the sort of hurdles that need to be overcome.
Consequences for the Churches.
The church was born in a situation of ethnic diversity; though in most ways far less radical than the global diversity of cultures that have encountered each other over the past three centuries, excepting perhaps for the massive barrier set up be Jewish behavioural distinctives in the first century. What ought then to have been a massive apologetic strength for the church over the past seventy-five years has been sadly diminished by racism, lack of vision, laziness and complacency. But failure has been by no means absolute. At a parish level most churches show some reflection of the multi-racial nature of their communities, whether of small gatherings of the elderly or of thriving diverse congregations. Whilst we need to outgrow the tokenism of every Christian organisation or major event duplicitously featuring a token black person in its publicity or proceedings, we ought to be making more that we do that we are a grass roots ethnically mixed organisation. The ideal, rather sanitised diversity of tv adverts, is reflected in more earthed ways in local congregations. As I have said previously, we too easily present a public narrative of failure – wishing to be honest, repentant and humble, and are too reticent in portraying a positive narrative of ordinary people of different ethnicities worshipping, sharing, loving and serving together. The tide of our culture is now flowing in favour of vigorously expressed, culturally diverse churches. We need to be deliberately countering the white segregation tendencies noted by Kaufmann above, and turn the fantasies of ethnic diversity in tv adverts into worked out, real-life embodied diversity in every congregation. That is a constant challenge in our training and equipping of church leaders. It is a challenge in season and out of season; we should make good now that at present it seems to have come into season
Podcast/video of the week.
Last week whilst doing the cooking (a rare occurrence) I heard firstly a podcast interview with Kehinde Andrews, the first ever professor of Black Studies in Britain, at Birmingham City University, as a Black History Month contribution by the Bloomsury publishing group; followed by a video interview on the Coalition for Marriage site with Carl Truman, author of ‘The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self’, which seeks to explain how such statements as “I am a woman in a man’s body” have acquired a credibility largely thought unthinkable a few decades ago. In short, the two items were epitomes of socially radical and conservative opinions in our society.
For me, the simple contrast was in the quality of the two presentations. Andrews and his American interviewer displayed a shared cosy certainty, a given and constant disdain for ubiquitous ‘whiteness’, represented by universities as elsewhere, and the radical utopian’s privilege of not needing to say what black (and socialist?) alternatives would look like. By contrast Truman and his interviewer were respectful to opposing views, and sought both to understand the historical roots and possible future outcomes of our confusion over gender. Yet, as Truman said, the cultural levers are controlled by those who disagree with him. Whilst Andrews (in my view, considerably weaker intellectually) has the platform of a major publisher and gets printed in The Guardian, Truman’s non-mainstream convictions over same-sex marriage means he is largely unheard.
Theos Annual Lecture: Reimagining Western Education in a Time of Racial Crisis, by Willie Jennings - 10th November at 7.30 on Zoom. Register with Theos. Jennings is the highly regarded Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University, ordained Baptist minister and award-winning author. His lecture will explore the past, present and future of race in the Western world, proposing a new vision around which to imagine societies that promote equity, inclusion, and belonging.