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Brands put on-screen diversity centre stage this Christmas, but is it enough?

Another year, not another white Christmas

Unlike Christmases past, brands and agencies have made obvious efforts this year to feature much more diverse casts in their ads. But what’s being shown on the screen has yet to be matched behind it. Will 2021 be the year that changes, or will brands continue to treat diversity as a tick-box exercise?

Firstly, it’s important to note that things have progressed this year. From Amazon to Argos, Disney to Barbour, brands and their agencies have made a concerted effort to put diversity centre stage this Christmas – a reflection of a decisive year for racial equality that was kickstarted by George Floyd protests and, more recently, with the election of Kamala Harris, who on Saturday (7 November) became the US’s first female, first Black and first South Asian vice-president-elect.

You only have to look back a year to see how much things have improved. While some brands made concerted efforts to diversify their advertising effort last year, the general consensus was they only just scratched the surface given that the actors playing the protagonists in most of the hotly anticipated festive campaigns were white.

On how brands and agencies have approached diversity this year, Sky’s senior head of multicultural business, Debarshi Pandit, contends: ”They were caught on the back foot, but the good news is they have acknowledged it and taken corrective steps. This is reflected in some of the campaigns for Christmas this year, where the cast has been more inclusive than ever.”

But whether or not we should be anticipating real change this Christmas, Belinda Smith of the World Federation of Advertisers isn’t so sure. Prior to the protests, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) found in April that UK advertising agencies are falling short when it comes to diversity. Painting a picture of the make-up of IPA member agencies, the number of Black, Asian or minority ethnic employees was shown to have dropped from 13.8% to 13.7% in 2019.

While improving diversity in advertising has been a perennial point of discussion, this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests put it firmly back on the table, with brands and agencies pledging to make their workforce more inclusive, spurred on by professionals in the industry.

Five months down the line, however, have we seen any tangible results, or is it still a long road ahead?

In Smith’s eyes, not enough progress has been made. And while it’s great to see a diverse cast this Christmas, this overcompensation on-screen needs to be met with increased diversity behind it. And from what we’ve seen so far, the creative directors behind this year’s films have been predominantly white.

”I believe that getting to a truly relatable, scalable place with diverse ads hinges on companies’ own internal inclusion efforts to diversify the leadership levels and those who hold power and budgets,” she says.

”It also requires their creative agencies to do the same. I’d be surprised to find that this work has been achieved in time for this Christmas. Lots of talk, little action and little or no transparency.”

Beyond the diversity make-up of Christmas adverts, questions have also been raised over whether brands should put more marketing money into Eid, Ramadan and Hanukkah.

Back in May, Tesco was widely commended for its Ramadan film, which saw three men stuck in lockdown, trying their best to recreate their aunt’s Ramadan iftar dish. It was a lesson in how to effectively and sensitively appeal to an audience that doesn’t celebrate Christmas.

Pandit points out, brands are ”missing out, while smaller, nimble, local players take advantage of this virgin territory”. He says a ”lack of support from their core teams, coupled with the absence of monetary data, gives marketers all the reasons they need not to be bold or to take a risk in reaching out to newer audiences”.

But, he acknowledges, change is afoot. ”Diwali is around the corner and lots of advertisers have already taken advantage of it by airing their ads during the current cricket season of Indian Premier League on Sky Sports.”

For Pandit, the answer lies in addressable TV, which he says means brands‘ Christmases coming more than but once a year. ”We have our own viewing data, married with Experian Mosaic data, through which we can build audiences and serve customised creatives not just for Christmas but for other ethnic festivities dotted across the year. We can help brands‘ cash registers sing Jingle Bells all year round!”

As we look forward to 2021, Brand Advance‘s chief exec Chris Kenna points out that while brands and their agencies may well produce campaigns that they feel reflect society today, consumers will play an important role in ensuring they don‘t go back to a ‘mainstream‘ perceived tone later on.

”It would be commercial suicide for brands or their agencies to not continue to ensure diverse content in contextual media as the way forwards”, he says, highlighting that ”diversity has been commercial”, and that‘s OK.

But if society is to evolve positively, Kantar‘s Lynne Deason indicates that we‘ll need to give people and brands an opportunity to move on from mistakes of the past.

”What matters here is that brands and businesses tackle racism, inclusion, diversity etc as a holistic challenge across all aspects of this business and not just as a tick-box exercise via the inclusion of a more diverse set of people in its ads,” she says.

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