Why are Australian ads so white?

Coca-Cola's Blue Flick Commercial.

Coca-Cola's Blue Flick Commercial. Photo: youtube

When US writer and academic Roxane Gay visited our fair shores recently, she noticed a glaring difference between Australia and her own country- how much whiter our media is.

"Commercials are not very diverse here. It makes US commercials look like the promised land," she tweeted.

Gay later expanded on ABC radio:

"It seems as though people of colour are completely erased from commercials as if they're not part of the consumer public," she said. "And that's troubling."

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Given the US is still far from coming to terms with its own shocking racial history, and that much of the population remains indifferent to the way this history lives on in structural inequality, Gay's assessment is pretty damning indeed.

I've already written about the lack of racial diversity in certain Australian television programs, comparing them to their US counterparts, which some may have been surprised to learn are far more inclusive. Of course, as Gay wryly noted, this discrepancy extends beyond the television programs themselves and into the corporate advertising that sustains them.

This means our television shows and the commercials inserted between and throughout them are overwhelmingly white. What does this say about us, in terms of how we see ourselves as a nation and in terms of how we view people of colour?

It's tempting to dismiss the importance of racial diversity in advertising, not least because I am, like many others, generally suspicious of consumer capitalism. Like it or not, however, commercials do matter.  As Gay implies, the exclusion of people of colour renders them so insignificant that advertisers need not bother acknowledging their existence at all.

Given my scepticism towards the advertising industry and its motives, I'm weary of heaping too much praise when they do something nominally inclusive or progressive. But, having spent the last two years living between the US and Australia, there is no doubt Gay is right.

Unlike in Australia, where, with a few exceptions, being white is equated with being True Blue, advertisements in the US, driven by big-name brands such Coca-Cola, Chevrolet and Banana Republic, are finally reflecting the country's racial make-up.

Compare, for instance, Coca-Cola's recent Australian "Summer Blue", "Pink Flamingo" and "Summer Fro" commercials (ironically called the Colour Your Summer campaign) with its US "Summer Song" counterpart, also released last year.

That these commercials are for the same corporation is a red-hot indicator that the problem of race representation lies not only with the advertisers themselves but with the culture in which they operate.

Indeed, despite its own deeply embedded racism, the US has something Australia sorely lacks, that is a level of acknowledgment of its own shortcomings and, in some quarters at least, a willingness to address them.

The roundly ridiculed Starbucks "Race Together" campaign, for instance, which encouraged customers to discuss race with their barista has been fairly criticised as naïve, unfair on the baristas and hypocritical (there are very few non-white executives at Starbucks). Nonetheless, it is at the very least, a blatant admission that there is a problem.

Of course, and here's my scepticism again, sometimes it's hard to discern whether this racial sensitivity on the part of America's corporate advertisers stems from a genuine desire for inclusivity or for the purposes of generating controversy.

Nonetheless, while certainly worthy of examination and criticism, at least these advertisements and initiatives exist. By contrast, the whiteness of Australian commercials is so thoroughly normalised that, as Celeste Liddle noted during that same radio interview with Gay, it often takes foreign observers to point it out.

We need to step away from this tacit acceptance of the way things are. Normalisation is not synonymous with acceptability. The lack of racial diversity in our commercials only further entrenches the implicit assumption that whiteness is the central human condition. White people are the stand-ins that everyone else is expected to identify with, while every other race can only ever represent themselves.

There are those who think simply talking about race is in itself racist, an attitude that is also pervasive in America. I can only marvel at such a comfortably cocooned perspective. How easy it is to dismiss the importance of race when you are accustomed to seeing your likeness reflected everywhere. These people are so conditioned to see whiteness as an absence of race, they cannot perceive of even mere requests for racial diversity as anything other than  "playing the race card."                                                                                                        

Representation matters, as this young girl's beaming face so clearly indicates. When we see ourselves occupying space in the culture around us, it reinforces our own humanity, our very existence. It is way past time that our media in all its forms acknowledges and reflects this existence. Because when a woman of colour from the United States tells us that our whitewashing makes her own deeply troubled country look like the proverbial Promised Land, you know we have a problem.