Opinion / Advertising

How the Home Office should have approached its careless #KnifeFree campaign

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The Home Office has faced widespread criticism over its £57,000 #KnifeFree campaign, which saw the insides of more than 320,000 chicken boxes printed with propaganda – real-life stories fashioned as short rap lyric-style poems – in an effort to dissuade young people from carrying weapons. The campaign also includes a website, www.knifefree.co.uk, filled with videos and other media to persuade young people to pursue positive activities instead of carrying knives.

The overwhelming reaction to the campaign has been negative due to the glaringly obvious lack of grassroots research or insight into the real causes of youth disaffection, which then spills over into violence. And, of course, the lazy and frankly offensive racial stereotyping. Targeting people who eat in chicken shops, with the fables of others who have made “sensible choices” (picking up boxing classes or heading to music studios rather than carrying knives and selling drugs), in itself does nothing to address the causes of violence.

As a woman of colour working as a creative copywriter, it can often be the case that I look around the room in meetings and roll my eyes in frustration. All too often project sign-off sits in the hands of very few people of a certain demographic (read: middle-class white men). And that lack of consultation of the people within the industry leads to lazy stereotypes within campaign messaging.

Nana Bempah is the co-founder, along with Kevin Morosky, of the People of Culture Collective (POCC), whose mission is to accelerate equality and positively change the experiences of people of colour within the creative industries, both today and for future generations. She condemns the campaign, saying: “The creative agency and the powers that be who signed this off at the Home Office will all sleep easy at night thinking they’ve done a good job, that they’ve helped.

“[But] campaigns like this just prove that public institutions and advertising agencies don’t have a clue when it comes to the complexities of this problem that we face as a nation. There is no excuse for this type of error, when there are organisations that have authentic cultural insights, because they are made up of people from different backgrounds. The reaction to this execution within our community was anger, but we weren’t surprised. We see brands and agencies get it wrong time and time again. We are fatigued.”

Ollie Olanipekun, the co-founder and creative director of agency Superimpose, who’s also a member of POCC, says: “The best marketing comes when we involve the audience as high up in the decision-making process as possible. As a society we’re not currently facing up to the root causes of the situation these young people find themselves in. These include severe cuts to frontline services, with hundreds of youth centres closed across London. The Home Office should look at reinvesting in those services that have been cut, mental health provisions and education maintenance allowance.”

Within the POCC WhatsApp group, we share and discuss examples of campaigns that tackle tough issues with nuance and integrity. The A Great Day in Hollywood ident from Netflix, released in June 2018, narrated by Caleb McLaughlin, says: “This is not a moment. This is a movement.” It features many black powerhouses, including Ava DuVernay, Caleb himself, Derek Luke, Laverne Cox, Lena Waithe, Mike Colter, Rev Run, and Spike Lee, among others.

Earlier this year, P&G released The Look, a silent film highlighting the unconscious racial bias that black men face daily. The final scene takes place in a courtroom, where we are led to presume that the protagonist is in trouble with the law. In fact, he is the barrister – provocatively highlighting how stereotyping affects the way you look at the world.

And from the UK this year we also have Date Prep, a sexual health awareness film. Set in South London, the four-minute film follows Antonia and Andre as they each get a haircut in preparation for their prospective dates. The film challenges heteronormativity within the black community by concluding with Andre meeting up with another guy.

Advertising watchdogs are well aware of the lazy stereotyping that blights the industry. Due to the furore surrounding the controversial “Are you beach body ready” advert from Protein World in 2015, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) reviewed its stance on certain stereotypes. Since June 2019, its guidelines state that “marketing communications must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”. Two UK ads were recently banned for non-compliance in their presentation of gender roles.

The ASA already has similar guidelines in place to end the harmful and lazy racial stereotyping that we see time and again. But the onus is also on agencies and other companies in the marketing world to understand their own biases and to strive to become more diverse as organisations with a lot of power and influence. You get the feeling that if the people in the room had more closely represented the people they were targeting with this campaign, then they would have found a more sensitive and nuanced end result. Only when agencies take these measures will we start to see more campaigns that are both empathetic and engaging.

Almaz is a freelance creative and the founder and creative director of Kayleigh Daniels Dated, a new web platform combining sexy stories with informative health features to encourage and normalise free and frank discussions about sexuality.