This week’s controversy in Italy, over the question of whether the latest Italian railways web marketing campaign is racist, is reason for an interesting debate.
For those who have not seen the campaign, the accusation is based on the fact that Italy’s trains have now been divided into four classes, and the ad campaign launching this fact showed smiling businessmen in Executive and Premium Classes, strangely no one at all in Business Class, and a happy family of Asian origin in Standard Class.
A furore is interesting for two reasons.
First, in Italy’s sometimes less than vibrant media market, the effectiveness of Alessandro Gilioli’s blog can’t be denied. The accusation of racism rose to national prominence, and the campaign has been changed. A triumph for the power of the blogger, no doubt.
But what of the core accusation of racism?
On that question, I find it hard to see anything other than a storm in a teacup. Or maybe even more, I was actually impressed that Italy’s traditional lily-white focused marketing industry was willing to show a non-white family doing normal things; travelling somewhere fun and looking like they are enjoying themselves. After all, surely all families generally choose to travel Standard Class? When I grew up, mine certainly did.
The genuine debate to be had is how far continental Europe (and I’d even argue the USA) is behind the UK in the portrayal of non-white faces in mainstream marketing campaigns.
I remember years back when the now long lost Radion brand launched in the UK in the late 1980s. It was the campaign that promised the washing powder would eliminate the lingering smell of most washed clothes when you iron. Despite the fact that very few people I suspect had ever smelt the “stale” odours that were allegedly causing stress across the nation, the product was a brief hit.
At the time a race commentator used it to pose the question of whether the UK public would ever buy from a campaign that featured an Asian or black family.
Well today, UK campaigns are world leaders in portraying the racial diversity of our society. Not for reasons of tokenism, but because it makes for more interesting, more realistic ads. We shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back too much as, with the honourable exception of John Lewis, it is rarer to see an old face, let alone a gay couple, at centre stage in a mainstream ad.
But that time I predict will come too, and the first signs of it are already visible in a few of the most interesting new campaigns.
So what of the Italian debate?
With apologies to Alessandro Gilioli, I think he raised the wrong issue. Italian railways should be congratulated for including a non-white family in a normal setting in an ad. The controversy should be around the question of why this is still all too rare across most of continental Europe.