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How Madison Avenue has embraced diversity – what can UK advertising learn from Tiffany's, Honey Maid and Cheerios?

Single parents, gay dads, mixed race families… Madison Avenue has thumbed its nose at conservative America this past year as it looks to better represent the world in which we live. But will the UK follow suit?

When Chevrolet launched a campaign featuring gay and interracial couples, chief marketing officer Tim Mahoney was braced for negative reaction from conservative fronts. In the months leading up to the launch Mahoney openly recalls reviewing the spot (‘The new us’ by Commonwealth/McCann Detroit) over and over with senior executives and several hundred local marketing associations. It would have been easier to walk away, but he was determined to reaffirm that “Chevrolet is a new company with a new way of thinking”.

And he’s not alone, it seems. Madison Avenue is changing. In the last year US adverts have become more socially liberal, from gay dads and grandparents in the Cossette-created ‘Cheerios effect’ campaign to models of all shapes, sizes and abilities featuring in Target catalogues. But why now? And how can UK creative follow suit?

“It’s funny, America is a nation built on capitalism, on buying and selling things. It’s part of the backbone of this country and yet for a long time, there were entire groups of people who were left out of this world,” says Kevin Brady, executive creative director at Droga5, an agency which itself is known for diverse creative narratives.

Figures from the most recent US census (2010) clearly show a changing country; one in ten heterosexual couples is interracial, less than three quarters (72 per cent) class themselves as white and almost a sixth are over the age of 65. To omit people from advertising in this day and age, according to Brady, is the same as saying ‘you’re not an acceptable part of this country’.

When Droga5 launched ‘This is wholesome’ for Honey Maid in early 2014 public response to its diverse casting – same-sex parents, single fathers, mixed race families, etc – was mostly positive, but creating the ad was not a smooth ride.

“Brands worry about their bottom line,” explains Brady. “They worry that their commercial will turn some viewers off and fear they won’t buy their product. They worry that including some types of cast will enter into a political area. Politics and, even more so, religion are still the most taboo subjects in advertising.”

This year, for the first time in its 178-year history, iconic jeweller Tiffany & Co featured a same-sex couple in its ads. Created by Ogilvy New York, ‘Will You?’ featured six modern couples, including same-sex partners and those with children outside of marriage. “The road to marriage is no longer linear,” read the launch statement. “We want everyone who shops with us to feel welcome and accepted.”

According to Jim Mason, executive director of strategy and insight at Razorfish London, US brands embracing diversity in ad creative is indicative of a larger trend towards authenticity as consumers crave a “more relatable and achievable image, product or experience.” By moving away from the known, safe path Mason believes UK brands could find similar success.

“There are a lot of tired brands out there still telling the same jokes and still casting white families,” admits Vicki Maguire, executive creative director, Grey London, who leads the agency’s ‘End the Awkward’ campaign for Scope, which aims to be upfront about disability. “But they won’t be around in five years’ time because there’s no relevance,” she adds.

The IPA’s 2014 review into multicultural Britain – The New Britain – highlights the need for change in UK advertising, with one of the more shocking findings showing that 77 per cent of British Asians feel that mainstream advertising has no relevance to them – this is a group which, according to the 2011 UK census, makes up almost seven per cent of our population.

Despite this, diversity in advertising is in a better state than it was 10 years ago, according to Maguire.

“I remember conversations with clients about ‘how do you feel using a black family?’ and ‘how do you feel using a white woman?’ – by and large those conversations have gone away. You still hear horror stories, but it’s not the norm,” she says.

Both sides of the pond agree that diverse agencies are the catalyst for diverse work. Speaking from her vantage point as a female executive creative director, Maguire laughs that her phone “doesn’t stop ringing because the big, fat lumbering agencies have finally woken up. How can a bunch of white guys in bad suits talk about making a client culturally relevant?”

For an agency to truly make an impact, it must have diverse teams on board, concurs Brady.

“We’re in the business of influence. In order to understand and influence, agencies must be multi-faceted. Our ability to influence a diverse culture comes from our own diversity.”

The Drum’s Diversity Census explores the issue of diversity in the marketing industries. Published in print on 9 December, some of the key results can be found here.

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