The many failings of the government’s retraining campaign

“Rethink. Reskill. Reboot’s” Fatima isn’t just an advertising campaign, she’s a real dancer, from America – and that’s just the beginning of the misrepresentation and harmful messaging of the campaign. 

The many failings of the government’s retraining campaign

In October 2020, the UK government’s retraining campaign went viral, causing a storm online, reaching news outlets worldwide, and naturally, a Twitter frenzy. The campaign, which featured Fatima (see below), suggested she Rethink. Reskill. Reboot her current career as a ballerina and instead, head into the cyber industry. However, the Twitter frenzy missed the misused photo and harmful misrepresentation of this campaign.

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On the first day, #Fatima was furiously retweeted thousands of times worldwide as people received it as a blatant attack on the art industry, leading to Parliament’s Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden’s Twitter response.


Perhaps more crass (and far less spoken about) was the misuse of photographer Krys Alex’s photo (see below). The photo shows young dancer Desire'e Kelley (left) and her dance teacher Tasha Williams (right) from the Vibez in Motion Dance Studio in Atlanta, Georgia. The photo was uploaded to Instagram in 2017, and taken without permission as an advertisement that those in the arts should retrain. 

Imagine being photographed doing your favourite hobby – something you're deeply passionate about and have spent a lot of time committed to improving. Then, without permission or even a courtesy email, to have that image used as propaganda to encourage people not to take part in that hobby. It’s pretty vile.

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Photographer Krys Alex told her Instagram following she felt ‘devastated’ by the campaign and continued to encourage young artists to pursue their dreams.  

“I feel like artists should stand together and support each other, our hard work deserves to be recognised. We should not be encouraged to stop doing what we love.”

There is such an outrageous lack of support or understanding towards the arts industry, that this government campaign couldn’t even rightfully pay the photographer for the usage of the photo.

The irony of the campaign, which couldn’t have been created without artists, was not lost on the general public as this photo circulated through social media.

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Including Fatima as a four-part campaign

Although just one of four images, it was Fatima’s ‘retrain’ photo which received all of the focus as the other three images failed to go viral. 

uPKw5AEABlB1tJX0P0-qmx1QPXVXVi90ZqaKxH8Qt6r4dBRZBkYyi1hrzvo7rNy1hw_VZIVHVqEe5gC3zdCb6yD8A2Q0k_dZLhRFsNhAbZPCGpCuekV9I0rarF43mQweNcDzWFzYThe full campaign by Cyber First & HM Government

The remaining images depict jobs in supermarket/retail, construction, and warehouses. 

Firstly, let it be said that supermarket/retail workers have been severely unappreciated, with only this pandemic highlighting them as essential workers. They face degrading treatment from customers on a daily basis, for what is often minimum wage. A scientific study on the impact of Covid-19 in supermarkets discovered: “Workers in customer facing roles were five times more likely to test positive than their colleagues in other types of role”. Perhaps just a little appreciation for those who have risked their health and lives to keep the UK’s economy going would go a long way.

Nevertheless, supermarket/retail, construction and warehouses are typically considered ‘entry-level’ meaning that they should be beginner-friendly. Typically, entry-level jobs require a minimum of GCSEs, yet due to the lack of jobs at higher levels, graduates also apply for these jobs. This artificially raises the requirements and means those without degrees are unfairly missing out to overqualified candidates for what should be entry-level positions.

When there are more applicants than positions for many of these jobs, the retraining scheme makes sense – it is making generally traditionally more gated sectors more accessible for a wider array of people. Yet, the decision to include a ballerina in the campaign is a blatant dismissal of the profession. 

To become a professional ballerina takes over a decade of rigorous training (the same amount of time it takes to qualify as a doctor). Would the government advise doctors to retrain after dedicating ten years to their trade? Of course not. 

Despite contributing £10.8 billion to the UK’s economy each year, there is a severe undervaluation of the arts. As a significant contributor to the UK’s economy, it would make sense to preserve the arts. Instead, the government suggests you ‘rethink’ your life ambitions and work in areas they have decided to be more proper. The arts are not simply a fancy hobby – they’re a leading part of the UK’s economy. 

While some may argue that the arts are not useful, how would people have managed lockdown without such creativity? Youtube, Netflix and Amazon Prime usage all surged throughout lockdown, not forgetting music, games and reading – these activities were all created by artists. 

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(Ofcom, April 2020)

Those in the arts industry are amongst the hardest hit by social distancing restrictions. Many are unable to work, and the lack of financial support for freelancers from the UK government has made headlines of its own.

Charlotte Bence, from the Equity trade union, commented on this issue further: 

Fatima doesn’t need to retrain – what Fatima needs is adequate state support as a freelance artist, support that so far she has been lacking. Freelance workers deserve better than patronising adverts telling them to go and work elsewhere.

The United Kingdom produces an exponential number of artists for such a small geographical location and continues to be a leading contributor to the arts on a global scale. So why is it so hard for the arts to be recognised? 

The Elephant in the Room

This patronising advert also brings with it another issue: representation. 

Why has the campaign only used BAME representatives? 

Regardless of intent, the optics on an advert that only uses ethnic minorities to push a message of retraining is poor. If you were to give the benefit of the doubt and assume they were going for ‘equal representation, at best it’s distasteful (and not equally representative). At worst, it’s derogatory.

This campaign was not publicly received as an opportunity, but rather an insult to people’s livelihoods. The need to retain (as defined by government’s official retraining scheme criteria) suggests that they are not already skilled. Equal representation should reinforce positive messages, rather than negative stereotypes. 

Similarly, giving the name Fatima (a traditionally Arabic name) to a dancer from Atlanta, to fit the campaign’s agenda is equally problematic. Desire'e Kelley is a real person. 

“Not appropriate”

Fatima has since been removed from the campaign after a spokesperson for the Prime Minister deemed it "not appropriate". But the damage was done, and now, people have almost forgotten about the campaign altogether.

It's no surprise that people have quickly forgotten about it given the ongoing crisis 2020 has been for many. However, the missteps of this campaign should not be overlooked. An apology was released regarding the insult to the arts community (which satisfied the viral frenzy). However, nothing has been publicly said in response to the misuse of Krys Alex’s photo or misrepresentation. 

To consider that this campaign must have successfully passed through several marketing advisors, board meetings and was still approved, without anybody recognising how “inappropriate” or “crass” it is, suggests those involved really ought to Rethink. Reskill. Reboot. Evidently, marketing is not the correct sector for them. 

Header Image Credit: Krys Alex


Elle Farrell-Kingsley

Elle Farrell-Kingsley Kickstart Team

Elle is Voice’s Media Sub-Editor and podcast host, coming from a diverse range of creative pursuits — including curating, music production, and performing arts. She’s a Liberal Arts graduate and a Y7 ambassador, with a keen interest in cultural diplomacy and the digital & tech sector. Elle is always on the lookout to make interesting voices heard on the Voice Podcast. When she’s not behind a computer screen, she can be found training MMA.

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