Last week, The IPA released the 2012 Multicultural Britain report. The ethnic population of Britain are three times more likely to buy a BMW, are increasingly visiting the cinema and spend £300 billion on products. The report noted that there problems with ethnic media delivery citing that only one in 20 ads created in 2011 featured ethnic minority actors. The solution appeared to be ethnic minority marketing.
As an actor 7 years ago, I remember walking into ad agencies for auditions hoping that that day was going to be pay day. I remember seeing the same Asian faces in the waiting areas as we sat chatting about what we’d been working on and which auditions were absolutely ridiculous experiences. We all experienced type casting across the board.
As a Chinese guy born in the UK, I was type cast as Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Filipino, Inuit and Chinese. And along with the type cast came the use of an accented voice that made me look like I was “fresh off the boat”. Reading through the treatments and scripts for the ads, it was apparent that transporting the viewer to an Asian destination was not always the goal of Asian type casting. Why would a British TV ad featuring a diverse mix of actors insist on an “fresh off the boat” accent for the one Asian participant? It was simply crazy racial stereotyping and was not directed as ethnic minority marketing.
I was the youngest black belt in the UK at the age of 9 and as an actor I was pretty buff, if I do say so myself. But, I never landed a single role as a martial art’s actor because I never mastered the Bruce Lee noises he was famous for. Much to my chagrin, roles always went to the underweight skinny Chinese kid who had never done any martial arts in his life. I realised that the on-screen Asian stereotype was to resemble Bruce Lee or a recent immigrant with a cookie-cutter Cod-Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese/Japanese/Filipino accent. It wasn’t just adland either, my stereotype followed me in theatre, TV and film. I couldn’t really understand why black people could have a natural British accent on TV but my options were reduced to putting on the accent or going without work.
Luckily for me at the time, there was a social network called YouTube that had been out in beta for a couple of months. Pre-Facebook and during the Myspace era, I used the channel to talk on camera in my natural British accent. YouTube in pre-brand era was rife with amateur video content creators building communities of fans who were very interactive and responsive to content. My first video only had a couple of hundred views, but traffic quickly picked up.
With my increased fan base, came a heavy band of racist flamers/detractors/trolls (nasty people) who would litter my comments section on my Channel home page and on every one of my videos with pretty vile stuff. The only way to delete the comments and death threats was to manually delete each comment one at a time. Motivated by this experience, I decided to launch my very first online campaign to eradicate racism on YouTube. I pulled together a collaboration video from the world’s top content creators to make a chain of videos that would swamp YouTube with anti racism messages. YouTube closed down racist accounts and content and implemented a comment flagging system that allowed any viewer to mark nasty comments, a kind of community led moderation system.
At this time, Asian online celebrities were becoming really popular on YouTube, with Canadian personality ‘Thewinekone’ taking the global top spot. I found solace online where many new viewers had never heard a British accent from an Asian guy. When YouTube opened up to brands, traffic increased and I saw my global fan base exploring different cultures through video content. In turn, they shared many of those things with me, including J-pop, K-pop, French rap and many more things non-musical. YouTube was very special to me then and remains so having made the world a lot smaller, accessible and collaborative. Recent successes like Psy’s Gangnam Style becoming the most viewed and most liked piece of content ever demonstrate the power of popular local content to become very popular global content.
In China there are 56 ethnic groups each with their own cultures, yet they are unified by one government. You can unify a culture through policy and rule, but people will always have different interests. I know many people from China who behave very differently from each other and have very different interests to each other. I think it’s vital to abandon the idea that the colour of your skin makes you behave or sound like one thing and to welcome and champion the idea that people regardless of gender, colour or orientation can share similar interests and beliefs. I’m not bothered that only one in twenty ads has and ethnic person in it, I just hope that in future they can escape the pigeon holing that annoys the hell out of me and my fellow ethnic Brits.
In social media, there are so many platforms and so many types of communities that could be segmented by interest, habits and culture. For that reason, I don’t believe in messaging directed at ethnic minority groups. Compared to my non-white friends, a higher percentage of my White friends, like Gangnam style. Proportionally, I have as many ethnic friends who supported Team GB at the Olympics as my white friends. Why would I therefore stereotype messaging to ethnic people differently to White people? Segmentation is great, but it doesn’t have to be through the colour of someone’s skin.