illustration by Kotryna Zukauskaite

Waitrose ‘racist’ ducks: from media click-bait to colourism & representation.

“The critical issues of the day. Fuck Brexit. Let’s talk Alf Garnett Ducks. Great stuff Evva”. This was my boss’s reaction to me commenting on the Waitrose ‘racist’ ducks earlier this week.

So if you fancy a break from Brexit to briefly consider the pervasiveness of ideas rooted in systematic oppression of black and brown people, perpetuated by advertising, read on.

Earlier this week, the supermarket chain came under criticism for their trio of Easter ducklings, which included milk and white chocolates called “crispy” and “fluffy” respectively, while the dark chocolate was labelled “ugly”.

I was asked to comment on the matter at a local BBC radio and came to realise that there was more to this story than perhaps, the very brief radio segment allowed for.

Are Waitrose ‘racist’ ducks top on the agenda of tackling racial inequality? No. We certainly haven’t yet attained the luxury of this being the most pressing issue. Similar PR-able stories, broadly under the theme of ‘political correctness gone mad’, emerge often. The usual chain of events is as follows; Pierce Morgan gets really upset. He talks to a relevant person on This Morning. The discussion seems to solely centre around how quickly people get offended these days. Pierce Morgan says something wildly ignorant and solidifies his position in the canon of irritating TV personalities.

However, applying a broader lens and putting aside the perceived triviality of this ‘news’ story, it’s clear there is a number of legitimate issues to engage with.

Diversity is not an HR tick box, it’s how we learn about the complexities of human experiences.

As my good friend pointed out when we fist spoke about this story. It’s a testament that lack of diversity in the workplace is still an issue. I could bet good money that there wasn’t a single black or brown person involved in signing off the product concept. This, precisely, is the power of getting people with multiple perspectives and areas of expertise in one room; you significantly up your chances of creating a well though-out product that can stand the test of being released into the real world, outside of your board room.

We often talk about digital echo chambers, created by algorithms which are designed to feed us more of the same content, based on our behavioural patterns. In practice, this means limiting the breadth of the content we consume and therefore, narrowing our world view. That’s exactly how lack of diversity works, with a multitude of life experiences and perspectives being the key components of ensuring that our work isn’t created in isolation to the people who will eventually come to contact with it.

Priming, colourism and the the power of subliminal.

The pettiness of the ‘racist’ duck story takes away from the entirely legitimate issues of advertising perpetuating ideas rooted in systematic oppression of black and brown people.

The problem is precisely that it may seem ridiculous to discuss this charged issues in relation to Waitrose chocolate ducks. However, if we consider that advertising is rooted in priming- a psychological phenomenon in which every time we are exposed to a stimuli, an idea gets seeded in our head, the effects of subliminal messages contained in marketing communication are difficult to ignore.

Let’s consider the historical context and a broader issue of popular culture, media and advertising having a proven track record of attributing power, privilege & beauty to a particular skin shade. In Western communities, colourism is considered to be a relic of slavery; during which white masters showed preferential treatment to light-skinned or mixed-race slaves. In Asia, the preference for light skin is said to have its roots in colonialism and class divisions, with darker skin being associated with peasants working in the fields. These ideas echo in today’s beauty standards across entertainment and beauty industries.

Leaving media theories aside for a moment, how may that translate into individual experiences? The other week, I went into a bookstore to get my 4 year old nephew a present. I asked the shopkeeper for advice, as I was specifically looking for a book with a male protagonist of colour. His mum mentioned to me that he was beginning to orient himself as a black boy in a predominantly white world (we live in Bath) and I wanted to get him a book he could see himself in.

A long silence and a startled expression on the shop keeper’s face suggested this was going to be tough one. In the end, they managed to dig out a book about an African goat herder. I dreaded to think how my nephew would feel if he was in the bookshop with me. Was this the best we could do? Lovely as the book may be, how about a male protagonist of colour whose blackness doesn’t have to be ‘justified’ by being set in a land far, far away.

With its pervasiveness and viral nature, the media carry a huge responsibility for even the most subtle messages. At any given point, we can either inadvertently perpetuate outdated notions of bias or challenge them.

Moving past the clik-bait.

Stories like the Waitrose ducks serve as an easy click-bait to engage people in superficial discussions about political correctness gone mad, moving us further away from real discussions about misrepresentation or lack of it. In a world where mainstream media still hasn’t caught up with the variety of experiences of the people who consume it and where beauty standards are still defined by the few, I expect brands and advertisers to feel a sense of responsibility. As a brand strategist, I expect from myself to question the ideals and the creative briefs I receive from clients, to push back when I think the execution is thoughtless, insensitive or exclusive. Even in those small, seemingly insignificant pieces of communication whose sum makes up our world.