Why racism is a global public health emergency that the ad industry should help solve

WPP Health Practice CEO Claire Gills believes advertising has a major role to play in the fight against Covid-19 and racism / Unsplash

In recent weeks racial inequalities have not only been emphasised by instances of police brutality in the US, but also by data from both the UK and North America which has shown ethnic minorities to be at much greater risk of contracting (and dying) from Covid-19. Amid this urgent public health emergency, what part can ad agencies – and healthcare clients – play in enacting meaningful change?

In June, data from Public Health England (PHE) found that death rates from Covid-19 have been higher among Black and Asian people. It also revealed that Black people are more likely to be diagnosed with the disease, and that those of a Bangladeshi background face the greatest risk of dying for the disease – in fact they’re twice as more likely to die than a British white person.

A separate study published by Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) in May showed that Covid-19 patients with an African or Caribbean background are four-times more likely to die then their white counterparts after being diagnosed.

In the US, meanwhile, the infection rate has been three times higher in counties where Black people account for the majority of the population, according to the American Medical Association (AMA).

The disproportionate mortality and morbidity amongst Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people, including NHS staff, is a complex issue to unravel.

In the UK, there’s an ongoing government review into the matter. Some healthcare experts put it down to a number of contributing factors in the general population – including: overrepresentation of BAME populations in lower socio-economic groups; multi-family and multi-generational households; co-morbidity exposure risks; and disproportionate employment in lower band key worker roles.

Another PHE review, based on responses from 4,000 people, says historical racism may make BAME individuals less likely to seek care when needed or, as NHS staff, to speak up when they have concerns about personal protective equipment (PPE) or increased risk.

What is clearer, though, is that (as ever) the marketers controlling the messaging can use their clout to enact change. In this case, that means the global healthcare industry – which spends $36bn on advertising each year – and the ad agencies it works with.

‘Parallel pandemics’

With a foundation as a pharmacologist and health economist, Claire Gillis is currently international chief executive at WPP Health Practice.

She believes that the communications industry has a major role to play in the fight against Covid-19 and systemic racism. Both of which have been brutally exposed in recent months in the midst of the pandemic and the George Floyd protests across the US and Europe.

“We’ve had these parallel pandemics of racism and coronavirus come to the fore,” she says, speaking as part of The Drum’s Can-Do Festival. “And only now are we starting to pay attention. Like racism, we’ve known that health equalities have existed for many years, but we’ve not done anything about it. One of the bigger questions for the [advertising industry] is what we do about that going forward?”

She points to pre-Covid-19 stats that show how Black women are just as likely to get endometrial cancer as white women, but are more likely to die from it, as an example of this longstanding issue.

“Racism is a socially transmitted disease, and we, as heath communicators, can’t be bystanders. We need to take action to make things better. We have a responsibility to shine a light on injustice, shine a light on the facts and mobilise diverse voices to co-create communications that promote better health for all."

Her initial suggestion to achieve this is that agencies and brands need to bring stark, uncomfortable data “back to the fore” to understand the impact this is having on individuals and build their strategies around that. Only then, Gillis argues, can brands educate and support populations who might be at a “disadvantage” and potentially put pressure on governments and corporations to change the way they deliver healthcare.

Change from within

For Faisal Ahmed, head of innovation at WPP-owned healthcare shop Sudler London, change has to start from within the walls of the agency itself with more diverse teams that can offer a nuanced understanding of the challenges their own communities face.

In 2018, Ahmed launched his own campaign and film to drive diversity in the healthcare advertising industry.

The initiative came to fruition when, prior working in the health sector, Ahmed’s father fell ill and was in and out of hospital for sixth months.

“My Dad is Asian, so were the nurses. Some were European, some were South Korean – they were from all over the world. The doctors were the same. Then I went back to my agency and didn’t see that same representation, so I knew we had to make a change.”

He continues: “Patients are diverse. There’s data to prove that Asian people are more likely to have Diabetes, as are those of Black origin. But advertising does not reflect that – right down to the literature. If you give an older Asian person in the UK an English-written leaflet on diabetes, they might not be able to read it.”

Ahmed’s ‘Diversity in Healthcare Advertising’ drive has so far seen 10 agencies sign up and commit to greater diversity within their advertising, which he argues is a solid start to an important conversation.

An 'institutional' issue

In the aftermath of Floyd’s death and the subsequent global protests about systemic racism and police brutality against Black people, brands like Ben & Jerry’s are already teaching the rest of the industry a lesson into how to making a meaningful contribution to dismantling white supremacy.

For their part, holding group giants including WPP, Omnicom and Publicis have made their own commitments to support black talent internally and ensure the work they produce is truly reflective of society.

“I’ve already seen a change among my team,” says Ahmed. “They’re being more thoughtful in their communications output, and we’re making sure we’re doing the same with digital too.”

Gillis says she is keen that agencies in the space measure the outcomes of these commitments. She adds that agency partners must be “disruptive” and have awkward conversations with clients where and when it’s needed.

“This is an institutional issue in healthcare,” she continues. “When you look at clinical trials it’s typically white men that partake in them and then we base our data on these findings. Change can start now, but [society] isn’t going to reap the rewards or the benefits for another couple of years – and that’s because of the cycle of drug development.”

Gillis's parting advice to her healthcare bedfellows?

“Whether you’re looking at healthcare or racism this is about making sure that all of the bits in the marketing mix are about directed towards things that will change behaviour. People need prompts and reinforcement and reward and they need to understand that things have to change.”

She finishes: “All of us need to be active allies against any kind of prejudice. We can’t stand back and passively let it happen.”

Gillis and Ahmed spoke with The Drum's consulting editor Sonoo Singh as part ofThe Drum's Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good.

You can watch the interview in fullhere.

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