The Ministry of Justice has been banged to rights over a recruitment ad for prison officers, featuring a white prison officer and a black prisoner which was “likely to cause serious offence” by “perpetuating a negative racial stereotype”.
The ad on Facebook was for the MoJ’s Prison Jobs scheme, with text saying: “Become a prison officer. One career, many roles.” An accompanying caption read: “We’re key workers, problem solvers, life changers. Join us to perform a vital role at HMP Wormwood Scrubs.”
But one consumer complained to the Advertising Standards Authority that the ad perpetuated negative ethnic stereotypes and was likely to cause serious offence.
In its defence, the MoJ explained that the photographs used in the ad campaign featured real officers and prisoners. It did not therefore ‘portray’ a black man as a criminal – it depicted a real person who had been convicted of an offence, and it was not an inaccurate or unfair representation of the type of engagement that might have been seen between officers and prisoners.
In its view there was value in showing officers engaging constructively with colleagues and prisoners of varying ethnicities since that was a crucial part of the role.
The MoJ insisted a key part of the campaign was about attracting diverse recruits into an essential public service. The image only formed one small part of the overall campaign – accounting for less than 5% of its spend on the ads – which used a wide variety of images and showed officers of different ethnicities, interacting with each other. None of these other images used in the Facebook aspect of the campaign showed white officers alongside ethnic minority prisoners.
However, the ASA was unmoved, saying that although it “considered the ad did not suggest that all black men were criminals or were more likely to be so than any other ethnic group” it did depict “an imbalanced power dynamic, with a smiling white prison officer, described as a ‘life changer’, and a black, institutionalised prisoner”.
The watchdog’s ruling stated: “We considered the ad’s focus on the positive qualities of the white prison officer and negative casting of the black prisoner was likely to be seen as perpetuating a negative racial stereotype.”
Banning the ad from appearing in the future, the ASA said: “We concluded that the ad was likely to cause serious offence on the grounds of race by reinforcing negative stereotypes about black men.”
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