Ad agencies have no appetite for workshops on discrimination – regulatory board

Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB) chief executive Gail Schimmel has accused advertising agencies of refusing to take part in workshops aimed at helping them recognise and eliminate systematic discrimination within the industry.

Schimmel was on Tuesday giving testimony before the inquiry conducted by the SA Human Rights Commission in Johannesburg, which is aimed at unravelling and looking at ways to eliminate discriminatory narratives, including racism, tribalism, homophobia and sexism with the production lines of the advertising sector.

This comes as the sector has been in the spotlight recently after some adverts had been allowed make it into the public domain despite having clear racist tones, including the edited social media Clicks/TRESemme advert which described black hair as “dull, dry and damaged” in 2020.

She said after the Clicks incident, the ARB had offered training on the code and discrimination to the whole industry but that there was no clear appetite to take part in it.

“We offered a training workshop to our entire industry. Only one agency took us up on it. We did that training for that agency. You can take a horse to the water but you can’t make it drink. We can offer the training but we can’t compel people to take it,” she said.

She said the state, including the commission, had to partner and help the ARB as the last layer to help compel those who did not comply with the board’s self-regulatory and voluntary mechanism.

Schimmel said the ARB had in the past year however done much work to ensure that its code was brought up to deal with demeaning narratives and gendered roles as part of dealing with recent controversies that have been faced by the sector.

She however pointed out that racial discrimination was a global problem which other countries have managed to address within the advertising sector through research.

Schimmel said the major error on the Clicks/TRESemme matter and in advertising workplaces had been conscious biases, complete ignorance and tone deafness.

“Secondly, it is junior people of colour feeling unable to speak up in creative meetings. This is something that worries me immensely. Number three is insufficient transformation in staffing,” she said.

Inquiry panelist Prof Tshepo Madlingozi however said Schimmel was watering down racism by branding it as “unconscious bias”.

“I am not convinced that you yourself are convinced that this inquiry is important, that racism is an issue. What it is for you is that errors are made due to tone deafness and ignorance. SA is a historically racist country and to use concepts like unconscious bias, I suggest to you, is watering down the problem,” Madlingozi said.

Schimmel admitted racism was a problem in both the country and the advertising industry, which she said was both subtle and systemic.

“That is why we need research on how that is working,” she said.

Institute of Race Relation’s head Gabriel Crouse told the inquiry that race was not the biggest problem in the country and that it was most minimal in the advertising industry.

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