Serie A anti-racism campaign sparks social outrage
Italy's top-flight league, Serie A, made headlines for all the wrong reasons last week as Italian football became embroiled in yet another racism controversy.
Racist incidents have blighted the Italian game in the past year with star players including Mario Balotelli, Kalidou Koulibaly and Romelu Lukaku all suffering at the hands of abuse from the terraces (and inadvertently the press).
But no one could have foreseen that the most recent scandal would be caused not by the behaviour of fans, but by the governors of Italy’s top league themselves.
On Monday, Serie A launched a "No To Racism" campaign, featuring the imagery of three apes. The league said the paintings by Italian artist Simone Fugazzotto would be exhibited permanently at the entrance to its main hall "to underline the commitment of the world of football against all forms of discrimination."
It said the artwork "aims to spread the values of integration, multiculturalism and brotherhood", but instead the campaign sparked outrage and an almost immediate apology from league chief executive Luigi De Siervo.
Anti-racism organisations, fans and commentators were quick to condemn the campaign via social media statements and two of the country’s biggest clubs, AC Milan and Roma, distanced themselves from the league questioning the lack of consultation.
Clearly Serie A’s intentions were good in aiming to tackle such a big issue in sport and society but how could they get the execution so badly wrong? Below are a few observations on why this idea should never have seen the light of day, but sadly did.
A Flawed Strategy
Perhaps the biggest error made by Serie A was the total lack of overarching strategy within which they are delivering their anti-racism agenda. If a strategy, including a central narrative and brand messaging, were in place then surely they would not have come to the decision that working with this artist, and this particular subject, were in any way acceptable to wider society.
Instead, the whole idea reeks reactionary thinking. Following the latest flurry of incidents, including the widely-criticised Corriere dello Sport Black Friday front page, the league felt like it had to make a grand gesture and it failed horribly.
Given the events that have gone before, it’s incredible to think that there wasn’t greater time spent on strategic thinking, social listening as well as stakeholder consultations would have led to a more informed strategy and clearly flagged this artwork as insensitive and reinforcing the notion of monkeys being a racial trope for black people.
Hospital Pass Planning
Clearly the league has displayed an astonishing lack of judgement with the creative execution of the campaign and the only way it can come to pass that the artwork was commissioned was the total absence of any outside counsel.
You could argue, given the long history of racist behaviour and the string of recent incidents, that Serie A should already be engaged with anti-racism groups at a national and international level for advice on how best to help eradicate this behaviour from stadiums and educate wider society.
Clearly they did not seek any external advice at any part in the planning process which is further supported by the claims of AC Milan and Roma who said they were not consulted about the campaign. And what about the Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) network, UEFA and FIFA? Or other leagues around the world that have all invested heavily to ensure it’s clear to fans of their clubs that racist behaviour is not acceptable.
Own Goal Execution
Despite the good intentions, the insensitive and ill-conceived choice of creative was destined to fail but not helped by the way the campaign was unveiled by Serie A. The launch appeared completely focussed around the imagery and artist, with a complete lack of context as to the wider campaign. Why was this creative selected? What other tactical layers were involved? Who is supporting the campaign and how? What are the KPIs?
All questions that should have been outlined from the outset but no answers appear to have been forthcoming.
Ultimately. Serie A has failed at many levels with this campaign and it’s reputation is in tatters. In future, players from BAME communities will ask themselves: is this a country they want to play in if they don’t feel they are protected by the league?
Commercially, the league has done itself no favours and its sponsors should be putting far more pressure on them to ensure it’s product maintains the modern values of progressive societies. Broadcasters and partners must be seriously considering if they want to continue to be associated to Serie A at a time when it’s credibility is at an all-time low and it won't help their renewal conversations or future tenders.
The only silver lining of the whole debacle, is that Serie A has brought the spectre of racism in Italian football even further in to the spotlight. So much so that the denial can no longer continue and Serie A, it’s clubs, Federcalcio and UEFA will have to face up to the problem.