If you ever happen to leave the confines of your house, exposure to corporate and public advertisement in the public space is inevitable. You want to escape it, but you can’t. It’s there, wherever you go. Generally static, large and lit, our gaze is ‘naturally’ attracted to these public banners. Of course, media psychologists, have carefully studied this. To think just how much planning and scientific inquiry goes into marketing and advertisement to manipulate the individual’s mind is sickening. But inciting mindless consumerism is one thing, fostering fear through racism is yet another.

A most recent example is the Transport for London’s public campaign warning people against taking “unbooked minicabs.” Although I am not familiar with the phenomenon of unbooked minicabs, it is quite clear that any such campaign has as aim not to protect citizens, but to strangle an emerging informal and autonomous economic sector in times of austerity. How this campaign tackles the issue is interesting.


One form is public advertisement or “warnings”, predominantly placed on the walls of the London underground. In the first image (above) we can observe the ‘shady’ gaze of a male. Not just any male, of course. The pigment of his skin is of dark complexion, his eyes brown and his eyebrows black. Underneath the image of the gaze, the warning reads: “If your minicab’s not booked, it’s just a stranger’s car”.  The dark male is thereby implicitly linked to the stranger, or better understood as the significant Other.  If generally the stranger, the Other, already evokes feelings of unease, distance and fear (think how from an early age we were taught to “never talk to strangers!”), the dark male — socially stigmatized through racist discourse as menacing, unlawful, and ‘abnormal’–exacerbates these sentiments of distrust, angst and terror even further. The magic is that the advertisers, whether consciously or not, play on the imagined, though deeply ingrained, fear of dark (male) strangers. The artists of this ad thereby strip themselves from any need/responsibility of informing the public of the possible “risks” of taking an unbooked minicab. It is already implied as the power of our imagination does the job for them. If it doesn’t, a more creative extension of the campaign below might give you a clue.

A short clip featured on the Transport for London website and Facebook page, gives us an even more racist representation. The taxi driver/the stranger is represented by the non-white male foreigner, immigrant, Other. The passenger, the eventual victim, is the naive white woman. We don’t know what happens next as the driver locks the doors of the car parked in some isolated area without network, but we can assume it, of course. The dark male stranger has been attributed uncontrollable sexual lust, an association that is not new in the White man’s imagination of its significant other. Indeed, the dark stranger is often eroticized in the sexual fantasies of the white man. The White woman, on the other hand, fragile, naive, and beholder of beauty, is the victim of the story. Neither is this one a new representation. Not only does the white, beautiful and vulnerable woman merit our sympathy, but also our unquestionable protection. Especially from the dark savage! Here again, does the advertisement fail to tell us explicitly what risks are involved in taking these unbooked cabs. Instead it plays with our internalized fears through public displays of racist and gendered representations.

If the advertisement fails to tell us the risks, it most importantly fails to challenge us on why people would engage in ‘unlawful’ activity to begin with. In fact, this is exactly that the advertisement wants to achieve. Hence, the resort to racist representations. Linking race and illegal activity in our imagination does not raise questions, it perpetuates these associations as normal, natural, and the norm on the one hand; and sparks fear and suspicion, on the other.