Dave Trott’s ‘funny tinge’ moment or It’s time to talk about advertising’s racism problem

“Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization. Always there lurks the assumption that […] the Western consumer […] unlike the Oriental, is a true human being.”- Orientalism, Edward Said

Update: Pretty much as soon as I posted this, I caught a block from Dave Trott on Twitter. He’s either not interested in challenge on issues of racism or he’s doubling down, which would be quite the shame. In either case, I’m strongly of the opinion that our leaders in marketing should be willing to address criticism head-on, rather than shy away from it and hope discussion will fade.

I’d also like to give thanks to Paul Dazeley for taking a risk and reporting what he heard Trott say. We need more brave voices willing to take a risk in a field that relies so much on who you know and who you don’t piss off.

We all know advertising has a large, mostly-unspoken, problem with racism, right? So what’s new? Dave Trott. But we’ll get back to that in a second.

First, the broad racism. In terms of who our leaders are, who and how we hire, who we cast, how we write — everything has been touched, consciously or otherwise by racism.

The creative fields are pretty white affairs. Our exec boards are pretty monotone. We will make casting decisions for our adverts on our thoughts about whether Italians can accept a black person selling a car, because we’re realists. Our scripts tend to reflect people like the majority of our writers — white and middle class — or project our attitudes towards other ethnicities.

This isn’t just a symptom of our lack of diversity as a business but is illustrative of our wider issues as a society and they won’t be fixed overnight. It’s much more often than not unintentional. It’s subconscious. It’s structurally reinforced but personally unnoticed.

Advertising is moving incredibly slowly, probably due to the way its networks shape its hiring, much like its corollary in media. How can we help advertising move faster?

Back to Dave Trott. A legend in our field. Likes to write. About to add another book to his Author bio on Amazon. Speaks a lot at public industry events. Has a regular column in Campaign Magazine. He’s an older, white, successful man with a huge platform he actively uses. He’s powerful and he has authority. His network must, by now, be vast. He’s seen it all in the industry and probably done it all.

So imagine my surprise when I see something like this on Twitter:

Specifically, Trott was reported saying:

“If you’re Asian (my wife’s Chinese and I was having this conversation with her), you’ve not got a lot of chance at being creative. You’ll beat us at technology hands down, all the while. But it’s very difficult to be creative because your whole upbringing is obedience; that’s the opposite of creative.”

Now, in an ideal world, it would be clear to most observers that this is an Orientalist and racist remark. That’s not to say that Trott is a racist. It’s not about reducing a person to a single thing. It’s that his statement is, probably unintentionally if we give him the benefit of the doubt. Why?

Well, aside from couching his argument in ‘my wife is x, therefore this argument has legitimacy’ terms, he takes a continent composed of many dozens of large cultures, many thousands of smaller ones, and suggests there is a common, monolithic cultural thread that stifles creativity.

It’s not just geographically ignorant. It’s not just historically ignorant. It’s the kind of statement you can only really make if the big thread you see is a visual one. “The people of Asia look fairly similar. To my untrained ear, they sound similar. To my untrained brain they behave the same way.”

So what’s the big problem here? Imagine you’re an Asian advertiser (or of Asian descent) looking to make it in a creative field. Thinking like this sets you up to have to work harder to prove you’re creative to the people who tend to occupy positions of power in our field. You’re at an immediate disadvantage on the basis of your race. And this isn’t just at hiring. It’ll permeate your interactions, judgment of your work etc. It’s something that BAME people in the UK face as routine.

Dave Trott is reasonable. He’s one of advertising ‘contrarians’. He speaks truth to power. So you can imagine what his response has been to all of this:

Oh. That’s it. He refuses to engage on the issue. To recognise any criticism. To use his platform to reflect on what’s said. To even attempt to add some nuance to it. “You just don’t understand what I mean. Something something creative.” It’s not good enough.

So, lack of response (to date), aside. Let’s deal with the common threads emerging from supporters who, understandably, want to see the best in Trott and give him the benefit of the doubt. For who are our heroes but a reflection of what we want to see in ourselves?

1.He didn’t really mean Asia so much as China, therefore his position is kind of valid

Maybe he mis-spoke and had a ‘funny tinge’ moment. Alright, apologise, clarify and try to move on. He hasn’t done that. But let’s imagine he had. Is that the end of it? No. China, a vast country with 1.3 billion people, cannot be reduced to ‘they’re not as creative as us’, even with many valid criticisms of its education system.

He didn’t say — ‘there are some problems with the education system which can make creativity a little more difficult to foster’. He pointed to upbringing, which goes well beyond education — bear in mind, his entire life has been spent selecting appropriate words — and he said that it’s very difficult to be creative because, and I think this is a fair paraphrase ‘they’re obedient and this is the opposite of creative.’

He’s making a huge cultural statement here. It’s the kind of thing that is often said about China. By people who want to point to Confucianism to make a really broad, often stupid, sweeping statement about what China is or will do. It’s usually racist.

2. You’re just being outraged about this and outrage isn’t helpful, it shuts down debate

I don’t buy this for a second. We wouldn’t be having a debate about this but for outrage and it’s absolutely right that BAME people (and white Brits) should be outraged about this kind of stuff. We shouldn’t allow it to fly. So let’s debate it. You’ll note that the only person at the moment rejecting debate explicitly is Trott himself. Speak to him. Get him to debate it.

But look elsewhere, eg to #MeToo. The Advertising industry has been massively improved by the movement in the course of a year. Behaviours have changed. The very worst offenders are out. It’s been made clear to the people at the top of the ladder that certain kinds of atrocious behaviours will no longer be tolerate. Conferences are actively changing representation & behavioural policies. Women are getting more involved. There’s much to do but outrage is important and usually necessary for change.

3. Let’s say it was racist or offensive, he clearly didn’t mean it

Great. He’s a grown man. He should acknowledge it and try to be better. That isn’t achieved by telling critics ‘I’m not going to debate this’. Or ‘I’m a creative and non-creative people just don’t get me.’ Or ‘My wife’s Chinese and discussed this with her.’

4. He might have been misquoted

The only strong argument here. Weakened by the fact that Trott has seen the quote, refused to challenge it and obliquely referred to the definition of creativity. Until he says otherwise, the quote stands.

5. But his wife is Chinese, he can’t be racist

Go fuck yourself.

We need to get better at this

Other industries are taking the lead in cracking down on racism. On improving their hiring practices. On educating their workforces. I hope this change comes to advertising.

With that in mind, I’d love to see:

  1. Dave Trott at least clarify and defend, if not apologise for what he said
  2. Some reflection on racism when it comes to diversity in advertising from Dave Trott — he often talks about class diversity, which is great. How about he uses his platform for more discussion on gender/race diversity?
  3. @campaignmag to provide space to someone to challenge his thinking. You give him a platform — it’s only right that when he does something like this you give a platform for challenge.
  4. For those who instinctively leapt to defend Trott — your heart is in the right place. But think for a moment if you’d seen this happen outside of Europe/US and said by someone you didn’t respect so much; what would your response have been?

Marketing strategist who’s interested in pretty much everything from social issues to politics to gaming to science.