Christmas 2020: Why are our ads still facing unacceptable backlash?

By Simi Gill, Senior Digital Account Manager

As we approach December, we start to look forward to all the usual cues that Christmas is coming – lights in our neighbours windows, decorations in shops, emails from retailers asking if we’ve started shopping yet, the Coca-Cola ad and of course the much anticipated Christmas adverts from our favourite department stores and supermarkets. This is a joyous time, right?

As I am sure we have all seen and enjoyed, Sainsbury’s released the first of three Christmas adverts for 2020 on Saturday November 14th. This advert featured a family celebrating ‘The Gravy Song’, whereby a daughter calls her father and expresses her wish to be able to come home for Christmas to enjoy her parents cooking. The father is adamant that his gravy makes the meal and begins singing a song down the phone to which the daughter cringes but laughs (in true daughter-father relationship style). Whilst this conversation is happening, a montage of Christmas memories from the family is shown on screen, showing laughs, dancing, eating and presents being unwrapped. It is undoubtedly an incredibly heart-warming advert that put a smile on my face and was extremely relatable with the references to the uncertainties of this year. What put an even bigger smile on my face that I am happy to admit, was the fact that this was a black family – finally, some more diversity and brown faces on our screens; and as the leading roles rather than background characters!

But sadly, I wasn’t surprised to see that Sainsbury’s received a huge amount of negative feedback online with many slamming the advert for “not being representative of Britain”. In fact, after I had watched the ad and had thoughts of appreciation for how great it was, I instantly thought “this will get complaints.” Beyond the criticisms, people have even claimed they are boycotting the supermarket giant, because apparently their need to be racist is more important than their need for food.

“I’m dreaming of a WHITE Christmas.”

“Will be switching channels every time this ad comes on. Well done Sainsbury’s for jumping on the bandwagon.”

“Good advert; looking forward to seeing the UK version.”

“Well done Sainsbury’s, you’ve managed to completely alienate the few remaining White customers you still had. Black represent 4% of the population, but you’ve ignored the other 96%. Good call.”

This highlights a huge issue that is still very much alive in the UK advertising industry; we are still not in a place where a company can proudly air an advert that features an all non-white cast who live in Britain without receiving backlash, disgust and anger. This wasn’t the odd tweet here or there, just have a look online and you will see a worrying amount. Who remembers the Tesco Love Stories advert from May of this year, which featured an all Muslim family? Yes, you guessed it – lots of angry tweets and claims of boycotting were flying around. But the Argos advert which featured a family of aliens, and the Aldi Christmas advert of this year featuring a family of carrots? Apparently, no problem with misrepresentation of the UK public there.

What’s also rung clear on social media platforms is people expressing surprise that this level of racism still exists within England. In recent months we’ve also seen an enormous backlash when the dance group Diversity performed on Britain’s got Talent, as well as a vitriol of hate directed towards Alesha Dixon for wearing a ‘BLM’ necklace on the same show, to name but a couple of incidents.

As mentioned, the Sainsbury’s incident is by no means a one-off, but each time it happens the consistent reaction is one of surprise. I won’t go into this detail here, as the BLM/D&I team will follow up with a longer piece addressing this, but for black people and people of other ethnic minorities who see this well-played out narrative, the resulting surprise suggests we as a country still aren’t awake to the racism that exists in England today. In order to start having intelligent conversations about how we can really address these issues, we need to face up to the reality that these aren’t isolated incidents and that just because we may not see these values reflected within our immediate peer group, colleagues etc., they are still widespread.

A recent survey from Channel 4 highlighted that a total of 51% of Black, Asian and other minority ethnic people feel that UK television advertising does not represent different cultures, with this figure rising to 62% when asked whether black and brown cultures were poorly and misrepresented in advertising. This is in comparison to just 38% of white people agreeing with this second question. Matt Salmon, Channel 4 sales director, stated that this lack of authenticity and misrepresentation in the portrayal of ‘BAME’ cultures – (a problematic term in itself that we need to move away from) – in TV advertising is universal, with research proving that the industry is not moving forward fast enough on this issue. The Channel 4 survey also found that 64% of Black, Asian and other ethnic minority responders and 49% of white responders would feel more positive about any brand that showcases different cultures within its advertising.

In response to this, Channel 4 announced in August their Diversity in Advertising Award will prize the winning brand £250,000 worth of free advertising airtime in a match funding agreement if they are able to pitch an idea that will authentically represent ethnic communities. This is part of the channels six-point commitment to drive anti-racism in the creative industries and improve Black, Asian and other minority ethnic representation. The winner will be announced next week on the 26th November and I hope to see other leading networks introducing such initiatives in the near future.

To conclude, I hope we can all do our part in supporting and celebrating the inclusion of Black, Asian and other ethnicities on our screens. I hope the Twitter trolls continue to get shut down by the companies they are attacking and the Ofcom complaints get ignored. It is a sad fact that these communities have only ever known and seen all white casts and have had to accept this as the ‘norm’ and the ‘reality’ of Britain, being made to feel invisible for years. Being part of this positive change shouldn’t mean the brand/company is seen as ‘trying too hard’ or ‘jumping on the bandwagon’. Adverts should be a representative place for all who live in the UK and all who contribute to our society.

Sainsbury’s response:

“At Sainsbury’s, we want to be the most inclusive retailer. That’s why, throughout all our advertising we aim to represent a modern Britain, which has a diverse range of communities. We have three stories of three different families in our advertising.

What Christmas will look like is uncertain for everyone at the moment, but we wanted to focus on how food can connect people, whether they’re physically together or not. These ads aim to evoke memories of Christmas food, which can transport you home wherever you are.”

Thank you, Sainsbury’s.