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Trading faces: What if 'Scary Spice' was ... white?

Scary Spice
"Would I be more scary if I was white?"  

LONDON, England -- Would Britons be inclined to "think differently" about homegrown boxing great Lennox Lewis if his brown skin tone suddenly turned to chalk?

Would "Scary" Spice Girl Mel B, who is black, be "more scary" if she were paler than "Posh"?

And what if white model and TV presenter Gail Porter -- whose near-naked image was once brazenly beamed onto the Houses of Parliament as a publicity stunt for a lad magazine -- was Asian? Would she be considered any "cheekier"?

A new UK advertising campaign deploys state-of-the-art digital technology to turn these genetic conjectures into visual realities -- and challenge deeply embedded notions about race and identity.

Watch the racial awareness advertisement from the UK Commission on Racial Equality

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Celebrities given new faces


The ad forces viewers to do a series of double-takes as favourite celebrities -- from sports heroes to politicians to TV personalities -- assume new racial identities before their eyes, courtesy of some computer-assisted DNA legerdemain.

The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), a non-governmental body established under the Race Relations Act of 1976, launched the 1-minute advertisement on Friday.

"Everyone in Britain should have the opportunity to see this advert and use it to help change public attitudes," commission chairman Gurbux Singh said on the group's Web site.

"We want it screened on TV, shown in cinemas across the country, used by colleges as a computer screensaver, shown on shop video channels, on football ground displays and so on."

The ad, Singh noted, coincides with a move in the British Parliament to push through legislation that would make racial discrimination unlawful in all public activities and require public bodies to work for more racial equality.

"The two processes -- a more effective law and a powerful public education campaign -- complement each other perfectly," Singh said.

The focus on racial issues is a by-product of British society's ethnic diversification in the wake of several waves of immigration following World War II.

The result is an ethnic kaleidoscope -- especially in big cities -- that has forced Britain to reassess its identity as a nation. Today, the CRE says, 23 percent of London's Underground staff are from ethnic minorities, while 23 percent of doctors and 24 percent of restaurant employees were born overseas.

An Asian London mayor?

In the CRE advertisement, a string of celebrities ask viewers "Would I be better (or more confident, or scarier or more irresistible) if ...?"

The advert ends with the punch line: "It's a great nation. The only thing we need to change is the way we think."

Ken Livingstone
"Would I have won if I was Asian?"  

In one what-if scenario, London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who is white, wonders aloud whether he would have won his underdog campaign for City Hall if he had been Asian. As he muses, his face assumes a yellowish hue and his silvery grey hair gives way to inky black fringes.

In another vignette, boxer Naseem Hamed, of Yemenese descent, morphs into a blue-eyed blond who might look more at home in Etonian high society than on the ropes.

Emma Sheild, the marketing director of The Mill, the London company that provided the digital computer technology behind the racial makeovers, said the trick was convincingly changing the race of the celebrities without making them unrecognisable.

In some cases, producers found that a good make-up job and a wig was enough to strike the right balance. But more often, they used body doubles whose features -- such as space between the eyes and size of the forehead -- roughly matched those of the celebrities for whom they were posing as racial opposites. Images of the celebrities were then superimposed in a computer over those of the body doubles, and then digitally modified.

"We wanted them to change race but still wanted them to be recognisable as the celebrities," Sheild said.

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British investigation finds police racist

Commission for Racial Equality
U.K. Home Office
U.K. government information
The Mill (digital visual effects company)

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