Ministry of Justice “reinforced negative race stereotypes” with advert

Wormwood Scrubs: Advert was part of wider campaign

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) reinforced “negative stereotypes about black men” in an advertisement for prison officers, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has ruled.

It told the department not to run the advert again and “ensure they avoided causing serious offence on the grounds of race”.

An MoJ source suggested to Legal Futures that the ruling was “well-meaning but ludicrous” and would be counter-productive to the goal of improving diversity in the prison service.

The paid-for Facebook advert featured an image of a white prison officer talking to a black inmate, with superimposed text that stated, ‘Become a prison officer. One career, many roles’. A caption added: “We’re key workers, problem solvers, life changers. Join us to perform a vital role at HMP Wormwood Scrubs.”

The ASA received a complaint that it was likely to cause serious offence by perpetuating negative ethnic stereotypes.

The MoJ argued in response that the 21,000 officers and 80,000 prisoners across the country comprised officers and prisoners of many different ethnicities, as was reflected in the overall campaign.

The ASA recorded: “In their view, the general public would understand that prisons in England and Wales housed officers and prisoners of multiple ethnicities, and that was reflected in representations of prisons in media, including news broadcasts and creative programming.

“The Ministry of Justice further 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.”

The ASA said it assessed the post as it would have appeared to consumers in-feed on Facebook and not in the context of the overall campaign.

“The ad showed a real white prison officer and black male inmate in a prison setting. The inmate wore an afro pick comb in his hair – a tool we understood was uniquely associated with black culture.

“The ad made reference to prison officers being ‘problem solvers’ and ‘life changers’, and we considered it drew a link between the officer depicted and those attributes. On the other hand, the black prisoner was depicted as a criminal, without those positive attributes.”

Though the advert did not suggest that all black men were criminals, or were more likely to be so than any other ethnic group, “it showed an imbalanced power dynamic, with a smiling white prison officer, described as a ‘life changer’, and a black, institutionalised prisoner.

“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.”

As a result, the advert was likely to cause serious offence on the grounds of race “by reinforcing negative stereotypes about black men”, and should not be used again.

An MoJ spokeswoman said: “We will be appealing this ruling. This was one of a wide range of different images used in an advertising campaign featuring real situations in prison – which is an essential part of attracting the right candidates.”

Just over 9% of prison staff are now from ethnic minorities up from 6.5% five years ago.

Photo: Chmee2, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

    Readers Comments

  • Jotaro says:

    I cannot believe they are going to waste more public money appealing this! What on earth for?? There aren’t even any fines from the ASA. Why don’t they just own up to having made a silly mistake and learn from it!

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