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In advertising, as in culture, the US still struggles with diversity

84 Lumber's Super Bowl spot addressed immigration and inclusivity at a polarizing time in US history.

While more brand content is coming out that depicts a broader scope of race, sexual orientation and gender identity, much work remains before US advertising is wholly honest about American society.

And that’s true even though research shows consumers want diversity in advertising.

In fact, a 2016 study from online market research firm YouGov and parenting website BabyCenter found 80% of parents like seeing diverse families in advertising.

What’s more, the research found 49% of Millennial parents were more likely to talk to friends about products that include more diverse family types in their ads and – perhaps most importantly to brands – 41% are more likely to purchase those products.

"With the paths through adulthood, relationships and parenthood so diverse and potentially fluid, the time is right for brands to recognize and celebrate that diversity," said Ted Marzilli, CEO of the YouGov BrandIndex, in a statement. "That said, it is critical that brands appear authentic and the messaging reflects the values of the company. Balancing a message of inclusiveness while not alienating existing customers is a challenge for many brands."

Advertising industry insiders agree ads should reflect the US population.

“Of the 319 million Americans, 40% self-identify as Hispanic, Asian, black [or] mixed race. If we narrow this down to Millennials, who are now the largest living generation in the US…the data shows that [six out of ten] Hispanics fall within this demographic,” said Kate Canada Obregon, chief strategy officer of brand and creative agency Oishii Creative. “That's a pretty remarkable number. So…it only makes sense that ads…must reflect this diversity.”

And they do. Sort of.

Per Tiffany R. Warren, senior vice president and chief diversity officer at marketing and advertising agency Omnicom Group and president of not-for-profit organization Adcolor, groups like the latter, which says its mission is to celebrate and champion diversity in the creative industries, have seen more ads targeted toward all of America over the years.

“When Obama was in the White House, there was a great proliferation of diverse creative [from insiders who] saw someone in the White House that reflected them – ‘There’s someone in there who reflects who I am,’” Warren said. “People wanted that from their brands as well. I do think just looking at all the awards that have proliferated around women and people of color in last five years, there’s a lot to choose from. I hope that’s a trend that continues.”

In the 2017 Super Bowl, too, a number of advertisers like Budweiser and 84 Lumber directly addressed themes of diversity, immigration and/or inclusion.

“I think it was quite striking,” said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “[There were a] couple of advertisers that talked about immigration directly, but there was a whole collection of brands that celebrated diversity in different ways. We saw Airbnb, Coke and Turkish [Airlines] in some degree. It was interesting to see Google Home…I think that was…very clearly due to the current climate in the country. All the marketers do extensive research before developing these ads and I’m sure all these folks identified a desire to move away from polarization and find common ground in the fact that they all touched on this theme these days.”

But marketers shouldn’t pat themselves on the back yet

While Matthew Quint, director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School, agreed more diverse races and gender identities are appearing in advertising in general and this trend is likely to continue – with the exception of Latinos, which he said are “way under-represented” in US advertising relative to population figures – Quint said the “does advertising accurately reflect our society”-topic is “a pretty big thing to chew” and “the obvious answer is, ‘no more than the rest of our entertainment culture’ – i.e., not much.’”

Indeed, even though the industry acknowledges ads should reflect society – and ads are better reflecting society – issues remain.

To be fair, ad diversity is a complicated topic. For starters, each advertisement is based in part on an individual brand’s goals and budget, Quint said.

“The reality is what you would hope is on an overall basis, you would see a level of diversity representative to our overall population on a broad perspective, but it’s like chaos theory – every individual brand is making individual actions based on who buys their stuff and who they’re hoping will buy their stuff,” Quint added.

In other words, executing ads that accurately represent society is not as simple as adding different races and/or sexual orientations and/or gender identities to the mix and calling it a day.

And that is perhaps how we end up with casting problems – even in recent years.

Often, a lack of diversity is the problem.

For his part, Derek Walker, owner of agency Brown and Browner Advertising, pointed to Ram Trucks and its highly lauded Farmer spot for the 2013 Super Bowl.

“We know the issue of farming in the South,” Walker said. “It was more than appropriate for black people to ask why we were not represented [beyond a single figure in this ad] as well. We have been agriculture forever until we were freed and then we were sharecropping.”

Warren, too, said there’s an issue when it comes to products that hit across a diverse sector of society, but the creative used to sell it doesn’t reflect that.

“I don’t have an example now – it’s hard when I work for a holding company…but I know there have been instances when I’ve seen creative and I know the majority of people who use the product are diverse, [but I don’t see that in the ad],” she said. “It’s [rare] in the last few years, but when it does, it sticks out like a sore thumb.”

At the same time, Warren said while there’s been a push for more diverse casting, to date this has typically been executed in the form of spokespeople, which was perhaps also true in Super Bowl 51 with Cam Newton for Buick and Lil Buck for Lexus, for example.

But forced diversity is not necessarily better.

That was perhaps the case in the Coen brothers’ Easy Driver ad for Mercedes-Benz.

“That’s their idea of diversity?” Walker said. “It’s a bunch of bikers, which I thought was kind of odd. Biker gangs have long been [divided by race] and then when they have the one black guy come in, I was looking at it and asking, ‘Why is he in a white gang…?’ I was cool with it until he showed up.”

Quint more or less agreed, saying ads with mixed racial representation are not necessarily representative of society either.

“The truth is we are still a self-selecting society by race largely in our personal lives,” he said. “If [the ad features] an office space, it’s probably somewhat representative…but when it’s…buddy ads a lot of those are one black person and one white person, which is not [necessarily] representative of our true society.”

But this is where it might get tricky as, say, the buddies featured in King’s Hawaiian’s False Cabinet spot and Bud Light’s Between Friends may or may not accurately reflect real-life friendships.

“I think it’s better to have an authentic story than forced diversity,” Walker said. “For years, some of us have called it the Coors Light Syndrome – they throw in one black person, mainly female, who is dark enough to be black, but light enough to be Hispanic.”

In other words, diversity in advertising doesn’t necessarily mean every single ad needs to include various cross-sections of society. But, per Walker, advertising should be honest about society.

“The assumption is white people will only buy from a white message and black folks only from a black message, but I’m not sure that’s true,” he said. “Can you do an aspirational spot with an all-black cast? Will it resonate with everyone? It should. When we talk diversity, we’re talking about diversity as far as numbers, but not ideas…we’re saying, ‘Look at how many black people are in this spot,’ but I could care less. If it’s a bad spot, let it be all white people.”

Cultural appropriation…and stereotypes

And then there’s the issue of cultural appropriation, or borrowing aspects of culture like clothing, music and dance.

“I think we minorities have been wrong in not helping define what we mean by diversity. It’s more than just the number of faces,” Walker said. “It’s about the insights. Don’t take my Temptations music and have a white man doing it. Don’t borrow songs, clothing, cultural insights – and don’t borrow people.”

In addition, Warren noted it’s not always a good fit and can read as disingenuous.

“When [advertisers] try to be too cool, they get it wrong,” she said. “But over the last few years, they have hit the right tone using their main agencies to do it, but also collaborating with multicultural agencies. I’m happy to see that trend.”

Walker, however, called out McDonald’s new There’s a Big Mac For That spot.

“Black Twitter ate them alive,” Walker said. “What year is this – rapping about Big Macs?”

And, Walker said, this is an agency problem.

“They opened a new agency to do that,” Walker said. “‘We know black people like music and dancing and rapping…what if we combine all three for the Big Mac?’ They’re going off of stereotypes instead of understanding, which is incumbent upon agencies – but they seem more than happy to go to stereotypes.”

(Although to be fair, social listening and analytics firm Brandwatch said the hashtag #BigMacForThat has been used over 3,000 times since January 30 and mentions are “very positive as sentiment-categorized mentions are registering at a rate of 97.8% positive.”)

Turning the lens inward

But even as brands and agencies attempt to better reflect diversity in advertising, their struggles may reflect their own internal problems.

Walker pointed to CP+B’s work for Domino’s as an example of an agency that acknowledged a well-known problem head on – and, as a result, Walker said CP+B might have done better work for Airbnb in its Super Bowl spot. That’s because a 2016 study from Harvard Business School found applications from Airbnb guests with distinctively African-American names were 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical guests with distinctively white names – but Walker said the brand skirted this issue in its We Accept spot for the 2017 Super Bowl.

“Airbnb said, ‘We’re diverse,’ [in the Super Bowl] without acknowledging they have a problem,” Walker said. “That’s the big thing. African Americans are still looking at it like, ‘That’s nice, but we know you don’t have anything in place to keep people from discriminating against us.’ This is one of those times where the ad may seem empowering, but the reality is the brand doesn’t live up to the hype…I think advertising folks are the biggest chickens on the planet. They don’t want to offend anybody. I hope one day we have honest conversations.”

To be fair, in a blog post, Airbnb said:

We couldn’t talk about the lack of acceptance in the world without pointing out the challenges in our own community at Airbnb. The painful truth is that guests on Airbnb have experienced discrimination, something that is the very opposite of our values. We know we have work to do and are dedicated to achieving greater acceptance in our community.

Time will tell.

But, until then, the work produced to date shows work remains, Walker added.

One place to start is within agencies themselves.

“Minorities are asking for better diversity, but we don’t know what that looks like or how it works,” Walker said. “Agencies are trying, but, once again, it’s sort of like something is missing from all of this…I don’t think anyone has a great diversity plan for an agency and the real hard and ugly part is if you are increasing diversity, do you lose people you already have? How do you do this? That’s a discussion we’ve never had. Implementing it is a whole different idea than talking about it.”

That being said, agencies with multicultural staffs can draw on the experiences of each person throughout the creative process and have conversations like, “In my neighborhood, that’s not my experience,” Walker said.

But Walker said simply adding employees of color isn’t the solution either – it’s about understanding culture, which brands and agencies are not doing, which is why they struggle to accurately reflect the times we live in.

HP…told agencies to be more diverse, but agencies struggle with that,” Walker said. “How can they produce work when they don’t have all those voices in the room?”

But it’s also not enough to just hire employees from more diverse backgrounds – agencies must empower those employees to have voices, Walker said.

“You have to hire for it, but you have to be smarter about it – there’s nothing more offensive to minorities than when people borrow the culture and then don’t want to bring in people of color to help with the message.”

Honey Maid as brand role model

For their part, brands seeking to honestly reflect society can in part seek out agencies with diverse staff members, but they must also brace for pushback to the resulting work. In fact, the YouGov study recommended brands looking to incorporate more diverse messaging prepare to stay the course in the face of detractors.

Even top Super Bowl advertisers like Budweiser, 84 Lumber, Coca-Cola, Airbnb, Kia and Tiffany reportedly saw calls for boycotts after their spots aired.

They can perhaps take a cue from Mondelez graham cracker brand Honey Maid, which said it launched its This is Wholesome campaign in 2014 to celebrate all families.

After receiving complaints from consumers who did not agree with the message, the brand enlisted two artists to turn negative comments – which were printed on paper – into a sculpture that said Love. Honey Maid also recorded a video about the experience, in which it said the best part was the positive messages it received, which numbered over ten times as many. The video has 4.4 million views to date.

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Lisa Lacy

Lisa Lacy is a senior reporter for The Drum, covering digital and search marketing. Based in New York, she writes about how brands use technology to connect with consumers, particularly as innovations like voice search, digital assistants and the Internet of Things change consumers’ lives forever – not to mention the data these platforms increasingly collect and the security and privacy issues therein. She is a graduate of Columbia's School of Journalism. Her bucket list includes riding in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

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