The Ministry of Justice has lost an appeal over an advertising standards ruling that found a Facebook advert to recruit prison staff perpetuated a “negative ethnic stereotype about black men as criminals”.
The Advertising Standards Agency banned the image, which featured a white prison officer talking to a black inmate, in November on the grounds that it “was likely to cause serious offence on the grounds of race, by reinforcing negative stereotypes about black men”.
The Facebook ad was part of the MoJ’s “Prison Jobs” recruitment scheme last year and came with a caption that read: “We're key workers, problem solvers, life changers. Join us to perform a vital role at HMP Wormwood Scrubs."
The MoJ said it would appeal the ruling, saying the ad featured a real prison officer and prisoner, and therefore did not “portray” a black man as a criminal. The department contended that it was therefore “not an inaccurate or unfair representation of the type of engagement that might have been seen between officers and prisoners”, the ASA said in its November ruling.
The MoJ also said the public would understand that there would be staff and inmates of different ethnicities across its 117 prisons – and that 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 ad, which ran in May, June, and August 2022, was one of several featuring people of different ethnicities and was the only Facebook advert showing white officers alongside ethnic-minority prisoners.
However, the ASA noted that people would see the image as a standalone post and “not in the context of the overall campaign”.
“We understood that there was a negative stereotype based on the association between black men and criminal activity; we therefore assessed whether the ad reinforced a negative ethnic stereotype,” it said.
It added: “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.”
The ASA said it had considered the framing of the ad, which showed the prisoner only from behind, wearing his hair in an afro style with an afro pick comb.
“We understood the hairstyle and hairstyling tool worn were important aspects of black culture, and were uniquely associated with it,” the ruling read.
“As a result, in the context of a prison scene, we considered the ad had the effect of perpetuating a negative ethnic stereotype about black men as criminals,” it added.
Six months after the initial ruling, the agency has reiterated that the ad “must not appear again in the form complained of” and said it had told the MoJ “to ensure they avoided causing serious offence on the grounds of race”.
An MoJ spokesperson said: “We appealed the decision in order to reassert the important principle that we should be able to represent real officers and prisoners in our advertising.
“This photo was one of many we use to help potential prison officers understand what to expect from the role, and to show the priority we place on building constructive relationships with prisoners.”