Chapter 1. The Process of Research and Visual Methods

Exercise 1 — SCARED?

1. Consider the poster below (reproduced with permission of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)). What were your first impressions? Write these down.

2. What intertextual associations occurred to you as you looked at this image? Make a note of these

Now read the extract discussing the poster.

Travelling through the urban wasteland of a city in northern England, surrounded by the decaying remnants of a once thriving industrial hinterland, I was confronted by this disconcerting and incomprehensible image – a huge black face brooding, threateningly lit and the word ‘SCARED’ in blood red. In what way does this text anchor the image – is it addressed to us or to the face itself? We are – I suppose – far from innocent observers of advertising, a cultural form which has learnt to derive maximum benefit from manipulating our expectations and the intertextual nature of our visual knowledge. Behind a poster like this there lies a lexicon of well-worn cultural expressions, the style of under-lighting, facial expression, passive trance-like, the size and form of the lettering, a face emerging from the gloom like Brando's in Apocalypse Now.

To construct meaning we refer back through images associated with film, TV, poster art and archive imagery. Our understanding of this is certainly dependent on a matrix of cultural knowledge. Is this a 'teaser ad' for a forthcoming movie or a public safety ad? We might look at it with a certain cynicism, with humour or irony as we are frequently confronted by advertising campaigns which make abstract metaphoric allusions to branded products. Is this simply the signifier for a product or brand which we have missed the TV ad for? Or a sinisterly lit face of another TV celebrity we have not paid attention to?

Depending on the currency of popular concerns at the time we viewed such an image we might well consider it to be about the threat of terrorism, or even about the popular anxieties exacerbated by tabloids over asylum seekers. Yet the starkness of the poster does suggest another somehow subversive and less likely meaning – that the poster is addressing our fear of ‘blackness’, a primordial myth bolstered and reaffirmed by hundreds of images of drug-related black street crime, tabloid panics of mugging and violence. In addition, lurid Hollywood images of gangsters in films such as Boyz from the Hood and New Jack City (indeed a whole genre of film from the ‘blaxploitation’ of the 1970s onwards) portray black culture in the US in gross physical terms of sexual and aggressive action. These are the very attributes which were perpetuated as stereotypes throughout the colonial period; constructing the black body as physically powerful and menacing and with enormous sexual energy can be seen to persist in these genres of popular culture.

But driving past, one can make out another line of print in white: ‘YOU SHOULD BE HE’S A DENTIST’. This denouement serves to both explode and expose the unspoken cultural meaning; blackness, without a biography, is a signifier and the connotations it refers to are all too often negative. Our culture has marked out blackness as other as deviant and whiteness as ex-nominated and inherently privileged. So by juxtaposing a deviant assumption – a white professional category – 'it' becomes 'he'; it is this shocking transformation which so exposes the racist expectations popularly harboured. This is the message – the rhetoric of the image. The campaign had intended to address the complicit racism by allowing the viewer to expose, through the readers’ practices of signification, their implicit cultural bias. We recognise the gross stereotypes, disturbing and distasteful as they may be, and at some level they may influence judgement, become naturalised despite their banality.

Another poster was ostensibly an advert for a recruitment agency with a slogan ‘Dominate the Race’. This pictured a besuited white executive climbing a ladder and treading on the hands of a similarly dressed black candidate who was grasping the lower rungs. These posters may have left people gasping in amazement at the extraordinary breaches in political correctness, but by all accounts there were not many complaints registered; the ‘Scared?’ poster (a CRE administrator informed me) had more complaints from dentists who felt this was scornful of their profession, than from individuals concerned about racism. The director of the CRE at the time – Sir Herman Ouseley – had decided to use shock tactics. A series of posters were put up around the country. Overtly racist billboards were planted in the hopes of a reaction. One, claiming to promote the ‘TDX-5 rape alarm’, showed a white woman sitting on a bus anxiously eyeing a young black man. The ad line read, ‘Because it's a jungle out there’. This ad clearly alluded to the pernicious myth of threatening black sexuality. They were alarming, distasteful, and arguably in danger of reaffirming popular stereotypes rather than shaming people for recognising them. However, the entrenched nature and invisibility of white prejudices is clearly the obstacle that the CRE was trying to hold up a mirror to (extract from Spencer, Race and Ethnicity: Culture, Identity and Representation, Routledge, 2006, pp. 22–24).


Do you think that the poster is a tool in a valid campaign?

Does it, in fact, expose our tendency to stereotype or to form impressions of ‘others’ based on a limited and degraded set of visual references? Or is it in danger of affirming existing prejudices?

If the face was to be replaced with a gaunt, white face what possible interpretations might you have given it?

Group activity

In groups, discuss your first impressions and the intertextual associations you might have made from  the poster. Were there significant differences or similarities in these? What cultural differences might have influenced different intertextual references (e.g. gender, class, ethnicity, cultural experience)?

Exercise 1.1 – ‘Truth: the first casualty’

Arguably warfare heightens a sense of national cohesiveness and alternative views are often outlawed sharply as not in the public interest (see Glasgow University Media Group).

Find examples of pictures from recent conflicts (e.g. the Israeli boarding of peace convoy ships) or Afghanistan, or Iraq. Assess the context in which the images have been used. Are the images used selectively?

How have the images been anchored by other features of the media in which they are found? Has the text which accompanies the image anchored and hence restricted the possible meanings a reader might have gained?

Look at any of the images or video footage of the-so called ‘shock and awe’ bombings of Baghdad in 2003 (these are available on Youtube).

Images of the US at war – (right) anti-Vietnam war protestors and (left) the statue based on the famous image of raising the flag at Iwo Jima.

How far are alternative viewpoints aired in Western social democracies?

It is suggested that the first casualty in media coverage of war is not truth but complexity. Why might this be true of media coverage of wars in Africa and the Middle East?

A poster found in a shopping arcade in an English city. 1

How would you interpret this poster? What intertextual associations did you make to other images you have seen?

Why might there have been angry responses when Muslim groups were asked to put up these posters in mosques?

How might a poster be designed which delivers the message with more cultural sensitivity?


1 See Spencer, Race and Ethnicity: Culture, Identity and Representation (Routledge, 2006) for further discussion of this poster.

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