Are the John Lewis snowmen actually white British consumers in disguise?

I’m beginning to wonder if there is an unspoken conspiracy at large across the nation. It’s to do with a very tricky topic of political correctness, specifically regarding race, that we all suppress out of fear of being castigated as a raging loony.

Let me begin with an heretic remark to get the debate going. Has it occurred to anyone that the John Lewis Christmas TV advertising neatly sidesteps the issue of race by using the uncontroversial characters of Mr and Mrs Snowman? Given their physical structure they are naturally white. Am I reading too much into what lies behind the idea?

This week I paid a visit to the John Lewis temple of the middle class in London’s Oxford Street to pick up a few items and, having had these private thoughts, I paid attention to the customers milling around on a Tuesday lunchtime; 99 per cent were white and I’m not exaggerating.

Turning to television I have had reason to tune in to ITV3 recently and the same issue hit me in the face after checking out the programmes. Lewis, Frost, Midsomer Murders, Rosemary & Thyme et al. All white, middle class settings and casting. Apart from the fact they are all ‘whodunits’ it’s all comfy sofa viewing.

We all know the Daily Mail is seen to be the organ of choice by ‘middle England’ and we all know we mean white, middle class in cosy suburbia away from any unpleasant urban detritus.

Also, of course, the Cabinet that governs us is all white; quite a lot of Eton college in there too.

Then we have the national treasure of comedian Michael McIntyre who packs in stadiums around the UK with his centre ground, posh family living in Hampstead, talking about the ups and downs of parenting riff. Not a hint of anything unpleasant or offensive. An acceptable face of all things good about being British?

Add to all of the above the recent success of UKIP and maybe I’m adding 1+1 to make 35.

This brings me to the more mundane considerations of marketing, brands, advertising etc. Do any of my observations have any bearing on the thinking going on behind closed doors at advertisers and their agencies. (BTW 99 per cent of ‘front of house’ advertising folk in the top ad agencies are also white, one major exception being the very nice Magnus Djaba, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi who was one of my rising stars at Ogilvy.)

For example, any TV advertising for cruises always seems to feature happy couples smiling at each other who are never from any other ethnic group other than Dulux white. Does that mean non-whites never take cruises or advertisers don’t feature them just in case it puts off the staple custom of white folk? I know these are difficult things to raise but it reflects what we see and I’m interested in what lies behind the thinking.

So where is all this heading? I sense there is a quiet push-back on political correctness from millions of people who might feel the country has been too soft or pliable for too long. On a sample of one I was talking to someone the other evening who had lobbied to change planning consent on a property development. His position was very clear: he objected to ‘affordable housing’ being part of the development, a legacy of the Labour government. He managed to get the planning changed; it was one person’s challenge to a situation he felt had crossed the line, a step too far. I must say I agree with him.

If I’m right and there is a quiet and polite stand being taken I suspect it will ripple through to the marketing and advertising worlds over time. Rather than structure target audiences by age or income or location we could begin to see more overt targeting by ethnic groups which is familiar in the USA. This in turn could lead to TV channels becoming more single-minded about their audience. I think ITV3 is already there.

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About Paul Simons

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Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.