How can a brand signal its acceptance of diversity?
One of the most obvious ways is the one that goes straight to the consumer – advertising.
Don’t get me wrong, diversity in advertising certainly does exist, but research has shown that representation of different societal groups in TV adverts saw a slight downward shift in the first six months of 2022.
ISBA, the body representing leading advertisers in the UK, together with the research agency Opinium and funded by Direct Line Group, run a twice-yearly tracker of the UK public’s attitudes towards representation in TV ads.
The latest wave of the research, which took place in August 2022, showed a decline of those saying TV adverts reflect modern British society.
The research has shown that UK adults still tend to overestimate the amount of representation in ads, compared to diverse groups.
For instance, 71% said that Black people are well represented in ads, while only 56% of those who identify as Black felt that way. The same was true for the South Asian community, with only 29% feeling well-represented, while a much higher 53% of UK adults said this group was well represented in TV ads. What this shows is that presence and visibility are not enough.
Having diverse people in advertising does not necessarily mean an ad is inclusive or that it represents a group with authenticity.
Take Volkswagen, for example.
Back in May 2020, VW had to apologise for its new car ad that showed a pair of giant white hands flicking a Black man into a café called “Petit Colon” – French for ‘little colonist’. It only realised its ‘mistake’ when it was pointed out to them by outraged consumers.
An internal investigation within VW revealed that while there was no ‘racist intent’, there was a lack of ‘intercultural sensitivity’ and diversity within its marketing department, hence why the racist connotations were not detected before the video aired. So, while you could say the ad had ‘presence’ of diversity as it included a Black man, the brand totally and absolutely got it wrong.
We see a lack of true representation despite continued conversations around diversity.
Back in February 2022, footballer Troy Deeney was praised for writing an open letter to the government about racism education, while in March thousands marched through UK cities on the UN’s Anti-Racism Day.
Comments from respondents agree that representation is often tokenistic or stereotypical, and that there is a lack of recognition of intersectionality (i.e. people who belong to more than one diverse group).
“One person of colour in each ad or one family here and there isn't enough. There's a whole <..> community never seen” – Female, 30, mixed White & Asian ethnicity
However, the LGBTQ+ community were seen to be much more positive about representation in TV adverts, and there are brands out there that are already doing diversity well.
“In recent years they tend to include a more varied and realistic representation of different ethnicities and people of different sexual orientations” – Male, 47, gay
For instance, Virgin Media’s recent ad ‘Skatergirl’, which showcases how the power of connectivity can bring people together, not only delivered a positive message, but also includes actors from diverse ethnic background. What is more, the ad defies gender and racial stereotypes by choosing a young Muslim girl as the lead of a skateboarding-focused narrative.
The increased openness and representation is also echoed in public conversations and events.
In May 2022, Jake Daniels became the first UK male footballer to come out as gay since 1990, while in July, over 1 million people attended London Pride, 50 years since the first Pride event.
Positively, there is also a clear improvement in the efforts that aspirational categories such as automotive and finance to become more inclusive are exhibiting, getting closer to traditionally more inclusive categories such as food and drink. What is more, data shows the industries that were typically more likely to be inclusive, such as the food and drink or beauty categories, are growing their representation even further.
A recent example includes Pantene’s hair product ad featuring blind broadcaster and disability activist Lucy Edwards. Viewers showered the ad with praise for choosing such a great role model to take part in its campaign. The ad included some mentions of the activist’s disability while at the same time not making it too much of a central focus.
On the whole, with seven in ten UK adults saying it’s important for different groups in society to be well represented in TV advertising, the call to action is clear: representation is the way forward.
So how can brands ensure their ads represent diversity?
A big part of it is self-awareness and accepting that we don’t know everything.
Take a leaf out of Google’s book: in 2018, Google carried out an independent review of the quantity and quality of diversity in its marketing campaigns. What it discovered was lots of racial diversity – but not gender representation. Google’s chief marketer Lorraine Twohill said: “My team brought me a new campaign to review. Dad was cooking in the kitchen. Great! I was proud that they had flipped a stereotype. But the next image showed he was there because mom was in the hospital having a baby. Sorry, dad, but we had to reshoot. Mom was away because she was on a business trip.” Following the review, Google launched a training course to tackle diversity in its campaigns, and by June 2018, 90% of the company and 200 of its agency partners had completed the course.
But even Google can take a step further.
Taking a course is great, but true diversity in advertising can only come from diverse creative teams.
Empathy goes a long way, but no white, straight or non-disabled person can ever truly appreciate what it’s like to be an ethnic minority, a member of the LGBTQ+ community or a person with a disability.
At the end of the day, diversity in advertising is something we can achieve. With a bit of awareness, empathy and courage, it’s a goal that’s within reach. To make it easier, we call on advertising agencies to hire more diverse people – if your team is truly inclusive, your advertising is bound to be as well.
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