Nick Breen: is Naomi Osaka cartoon a one-off or indicative of a broader problem?

One of tennis star Naomi Osaka’s sponsors, Nissin, has come under fierce criticism after it released an advertisement featuring a cartoon representation of Osaka, who is ethnically half-Haitian and half-Japanese, with pale skin and wavy brown hair. The sponsor has been accused of ‘whitewashing’ the athlete. This is the second time in recent history that Osaka has been caught up in controversy concerning racial representation; in September last year, the Herald Sun was accused of racism after publishing a cartoon featuring depictions of Osaka and Serena Williams with physical characteristics which were considered by many to be racist.

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Although Nissin has since apologised both to the athlete directly and to the public in general for the advertisement, it provokes a broader question regarding fair and appropriate racial representation in advertising. According to Lloyds Banking Group’s Ethnicity in Advertising report, although there has been a significant increase in representation for B.A.M.E. (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) groups since 2015, still only seven per cent of lead roles in advertisements are played by someone from a B.A.M.E. group.

However, it is not only the quantity of representative advertising that is important, but the nature of such representation. This latest controversy concerning Osaka highlights this distinction as the issue has been the nature of her representation. Inaccurate and insensitive cultural and racial portrayals in advertising has been as problematic an issue as representation, with 34 per cent of Black respondents believing that they are portrayed inaccurately in advertising according to the Lloyd’s report. In the same report, 29 per cent of Black respondents believe that they are negatively stereotyped in advertising.

In the UK, the CAP Code rules state that advertisements must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, with particular care being taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race. In the context of the regulators recently publishing more specific rules against negative gender stereotyping in advertisements, it is worth asking whether it is now time for similar, more nuanced rules to be introduced to reduce racial stereotyping in advertising and to encourage better racial representation overall.

With increased scrutiny on fair B.A.M.E. representation across other areas in the media industry; notably TV, film and theatre, it is only a natural progression for similar steps to be made in advertising.

Nick Breen is an associate at international law firm Reed Smith.

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