You don't expect to see a Chinese-language advertising campaign in a European city - but that's what visitors to Milan may have spotted recently. The poster, strategically placed in Milan's Chinatown, was for the Italian post office's international money transfer service. It is one of the few examples of an advertiser deliberately and efficiently targeting one of Europe's ethnic groups.
Advertising agencies and media buyers agree that, compared with the US, media and advertising aimed at ethnic groups is under-developed in Europe.
"To some extent the US is more developed because of the high profile of the African-Americans and Hispanics," Stacey Lynn Koerner, the director of global research integration at Initiative in New York, says. "A lot of American culture comes from urban centres, where these groups have a huge influence on music and fashion, and therefore on media and advertising. Just think of J-Lo."
She points out that US media buyers often know a lot more about the consumption habits and behaviour of these groups than their colleagues in Europe.
"In France, for instance, it's against the law to ask about a person's racial background in a survey. If you don't know who is out there, how do you communicate with them?" she says.
The UK is comparatively developed in its attitude to ethnicity. Jonathan Mildenhall, the managing director of TBWA\London and the co-chairman of the IPA's diversity project, says: "Compare us with Germany, which has a huge Turkish population but is very segregated and has more overt racism. In London, 32 per cent of the population are of ethnic origin, so it's difficult to create segregation."
Having said that, the Brits are hardly more advanced than anyone else when it comes to advertising to minorities. Mildenhall says: "The media aimed at these groups tend to be very self-contained, and there is little cross-fertilisation in terms of learning. They do not have the budgets or the desire to quantify their audiences, so advertisers are reluctant to invest in them."
Not that this has slowed the development of ethnic media in the UK, particularly in the Asian community. Mildenhall says there are 29 Asian TV stations on Sky, plus 30-odd newspapers and magazines. But he adds that these media rely on "the Asian pound" rather than mainstream advertising revenue.
The black community attracts even less targeted advertising, Mildenhall says. "Clients such as our own fcuk are very interested in the young, urban, black audience - but they believe they can reach them through posters," he explains.
Surprisingly, it seems that Italy is another fairly advanced market when it comes to targeting ethnic groups. Carat Italia, for example, has a department, called Geoconsulting, specifically to deal with this issue.
Italy has minority populations from Romania, Morocco, Albania, Ukraine, China and Latin America. They add up to three million - roughly the population of central Rome.
Laura Bosello, the general manager of Carat Geoconsulting, says: "These groups prefer products imported from their countries of origin, or to consume Italian media. Our studies show that 73 per cent of minority groups watch Italian TV, particularly news and sports. They are also keen on free newspapers such as Metro, City and Leggo."
But advertisers with an interest in these groups have shown imagination when it comes to targeting them. Another financial group offering money transfer services, Western Union, communicates to immigrants in 60 languages, in 30 countries across Europe through the media agency Starcom. As well as plenty of outdoor to reach its time- and cash-poor audience, WU uses a late-night TV show. The Western Union Football Show airs twice a week on local TV stations across Italy. It features "extra-European" football tournaments such as the Asian Cup and the South American Copa Libertadores.
Spain, too, has important minority groups. There are more than one million immigrants in the country, mostly from European, North African and Latin American countries. The gypsy community makes up around 5 per cent of the population. But the Instituto Nacional de Estadisca (National Statistics Institute) says these groups consume mainstream Spanish media, imported press or Arabic satellite TV, and that there are few ethnic media properties based in Spain.
The situation is similar in Germany. Jurgen Blomenkamp, the chief executive of MediaCom Germany, says: "Although we have a large Turkish population of around three million, media vehicles to reach them are slow to develop. The press is imported from Turkey, and the Turkish government owns the only TV station, TRT. It's a very self-reliant community."
In France, the government has a firm policy of integration - hence its controversial decision to ban religious symbols, such as traditional headwear, from schools. Yet the country is highly multicultural. "France seems unwilling to admit to its own diversity," observes Jean-Christophe Despres, a former Publicis executive who created the "ethnic marketing agency" Sopi Communication last year (the name means "change" in Wolof, a Senegalese language). "We started this business to remind advertisers that ethnic markets exist."
The French Arab community (whose members refer to themselves as "beurs" in verlan, the French backwards-talking street slang) is by far the largest minority, at around six million. The Arabic press is available at every kiosk and TV stations are beamed in by satellite. But there is also a domestic radio station, Beur FM, founded more than 20 years ago.
According to the monitoring service Mediametrie, it has around 110,000 listeners a day. Last year, the group started its own cable and satellite TV station, Beur TV.
Despres says: "Because the Beur name is well-established, it can attract advertising from large clients such as France Telecom. And it's fair to say that some advertisers, such as ( the supermarket chain) Monoprix and the (French transport authority) RATP, have a broad-minded, multiracial approach to advertising."
He also mentions the beauty and hair-care giant L'Oreal, which has a specialist unit dedicated to developing skin and hair products for ethnic groups. "The only problem is that it insists on importing ads created in the US or Britain," he says. "But a black person in Paris is not the same as one in London or New York."
At least France's black community is attracting advertising euros. A lifestyle magazine called CiteBlack Paris, with a circulation of 15,000, counts the mobile phone operator Bouygues Telecom and the cosmetics giant Yves Rocher among its advertisers. The likes of Renault and Carrefour can be heard on the radio station Media Tropical, while another station, Africa No. 1, frequently pulls in upmarket clothing brands.
However, Despres says: "In terms of ethnic marketing and attitudes to race in general, we have a long way to go before we reach the level of the UK."
This article was first published on Campaign