How anti-racism advertising can backfire

December 09, 2002

People in two minds about their attitudes towards ethnic minority groups become more unfavourable when exposed to anti-racism advertising or arguments, according to new research sponsored by the ESRC.

The 'backfire effects' occur both in conscious and non-conscious feelings towards people from ethnic minorities, says a report based on studies by a team led by Dr Gregory Maio of the School of Psychology at Cardiff University.

These findings, according to the research team, have dramatic implications for the use of anti-racism advertising. In the UK, messages attacking prejudice and racism have been used by many organisations, including the Commission for Racial Equality, the Racial Equality in Employment Project and Football Against Racism. However, no previous research has examined the actual impact of anti-racism advertisements on prejudice.

For their research, the team carried out 12 studies, each involving at least 60 male and female undergraduates at Cardiff University. They found that these effects on attitudes occur even months after people's conflict of feelings has been measured, and days after the anti-racism messages are presented to them.

By contrast, for those who were not ambivalent in their attitude, anti-racism messages elicited less prejudice. The studies supported past evidence that people with a conflict of attitude towards ethnic minorities are more likely to spend more time carefully reading an editorial about such a group.

They will both like and dislike a particular ethnic group at the same time. And they will carefully scrutinize messages that support a positive attitude toward that group, perhaps because they hope to reduce the conflict and tension in their attitudes. Ironically, however, this process leads to more negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities where the material these people read contains weak arguments in favour of the group or critical of it.

The reports argues that it is important to begin understanding the ways in which anti-racism messages might help reduce ambivalence, and consequently make people more amenable to what is being said.

It might be possible, at the point when people start to read anti-racist messages, to reduce the conflict of attitude by presenting the reader's negative and positive feelings towards certain groups as complementary. For example, people could be encouraged to see a minority group's 'arrogance' as arising partly because of its perception of its 'strong adherance to moral principle', says the report. However, the researchers found that this is possible only in carefully controlled situations, limited to a short period.

Said Dr. Maio: "It is important to develop messages that elicit more positive attitudes toward ethnic minority people among recipients who are initially ambivalent toward them. "At the very least, it is important to design messages that do not increase prejudice among people in this category, as was found in this research."
For further information, contact Dr Gregory Maio on 44-292-087-6260, or email:
Or Iain Stewart or Lesley Lilley at ESRC, on 01793 413032/413119

1. The research report 'The Development of Anti-Racism Advertisements: Effects of Attitude Ambivalence and Attitude Function' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Dr Maio is at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University, Cardiff CF10 3YG.
2. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £53 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is
3. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at

Economic & Social Research Council

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