Work & Wellbeing Brand Purpose Diversity & Inclusion

‘Days of smacking a rainbow flag on a logo are limited,’ per Advertising Week panelists


By Kendra Barnett | Senior Reporter

October 18, 2022 | 9 min read

Representation can no longer be a check-the-box activity for advertisers, experts say.

Panelists at Advertising Week New York

Advertising Week speakers are demanding more from brands when it comes to representation / Kendra Clark

At a time when historically disenfranchised populations have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and its economic effects – and our political and social landscape has grown increasingly fraught – brands are facing more pressure than ever to advance equity, inclusion and representation for diverse populations.

This has been a hot topic at Advertising Week New York, where marketing professionals have gathered in lower Manhattan this week from across the globe. A core focus of many panel discussions has been getting representation and purpose-based marketing right in the wake of the reversal of Roe v. Wade earlier this year, amid growing anti-LGBTQ+ legislative action and ahead of the US midterms season – which is expected to see both historic turnout and higher ad spend than any other midterms cycle in the country’s history.

Increasingly, those who manage ad budgets are under pressure to consider, “How do we illustrate for the consumer, for audiences, that we understand the community and we care about how the brand is being received by them?,” Stacie M de Armas, senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Nielsen at a panel today. “It has now moved front-and-center for planners and buyers.”

Nuanced, thoughtful representation matters in media

A key part of the conversation about representation concerns authenticity and nuance. Since purpose-focused marketing became a mainstream activity for major corporations, it’s been far too easy to treat socio-political issues reductively and to portray richly diverse populations in one-dimensional ways – think slapping a rainbow flag onto a Pride campaign.

Consumers – and ad industry stakeholders – are demanding more. For example, in a conversation today about advertising against the backdrop of Roe’s repeal, Rachel Lowenstein, global head of inclusive innovation at Mindshare, said that historically, “a lot of media hasn't represented [the issue of bodily autonomy rights] in an honest or nuanced way.”

Due in large part to social taboos, she pointed out, media about reproductive care rarely centers on real people’s first-hand stories – and only 11% of media about abortion references medical research. Plus, media organizations and publishers are often hesitant to run content that’s too explicitly political for fear of losing ad dollars.

But consumers are demanding better; 64% believe that media has a responsibility to educate the public on bodily autonomy, per new joint research by GroupM and Mindshare. More than a third of women surveyed claimed they’d stop purchasing from a brand if its chief executive officer made regressive statements about bodily autonomy. This number grows to 41% for mixed-race women and to 38% for LGBTQ+ folks.

Some are making a concerted effort to be more explicit and direct about issues of reproductive care and bodily autonomy, however. New York magazine's May issue's cover boldly proclaimed, “This Magazine Can Help You Get an Abortion.” With a 20-page print spread and an interactive online portal, readers and users got access not only to stories of real women, but also a robust guide on abortion care in every US state.

“It’s not a taboo subject for us; it shouldn’t be for anyone,” said Jen Ortiz, deputy editor at The Cut, New York Magazine. “We’re going to say ‘abortion’ and talk really straightforwardly about what different procedures look like and how to navigate different digital [privacy challenges]. It does not serve our reader to only talk about [political and legislative] conversations happening around abortion. We need to talk about the lives that are being affected … and how readers are going to navigate this.”

The bold move paid off, per Ortiz. Advertisers were “pleased and excited” to place media around this kind of content as a way to proclaim their values and appeal to target audiences.

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True authenticity can be a risk that's worth the reward

In the same way that people with uteruses are demanding more nuance and honesty from media about conversations surrounding abortion, the LGBTQ+ population is calling for brands to move beyond ‘pink-washing’ and deliver authentic messages backed by real action.

Experts say that brands can no longer talk the talk without walking the walk. “I believe we’re nearing the end of the era of dissociation for brands … [when it comes to] corporate actions and how they’re tied to brand,” said Graham Nolan, co-chair of storytelling and partnerships at Do the WeRQ, a platform focused on advancing queer creativity in advertising.

The sentiment was echoed by Joon Park, senior cultural strategist at Omnicom-owned cultural consultancy Sparks & Honey, who said, “Purpose-driven marketing, especially [efforts] that are more radical and transformative, are here to stay.” They pointed to H&R Block’s efforts in 2019 to provide tax assistance to sex workers as an example of a brand aligning its stated values with its corporate actions.

Of course, brands aren’t guaranteed a warm reception simply because they’ve taken up the mantle. “You should build into your plans [the possibility of being] canceled … assuming that you take a stance on any issue,” said Nick Wolney, senior editor of NextAdvisor and a journalist specializing in LGBTQ+ and money-related coverage. Even so, he explained, brands that go bold and decide to take a gamble often stand to gain a lot, too – namely, he says, brand allegiance and brand longevity. Wolney recalled both the backlash and brand love that came to Nike as a result of its divisive 2018 ‘Dream Crazy‘ campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick.

He and other panelists agreed that brands can fall and get back up to try again so long as their actions and intentions are truly aligned with the purpose they’re proclaiming.

Another underserved community – especially when it comes to inclusive brand marketing – consists of older consumers, who, like many in the LGBTQ+ community, have been frustrated with monolithic-style representation in media. “Marketing and tech need to expand to include and represent [older folks],” said Purvi Doraiswamy, vice-president of digital operations at AARP, in a fireside chat today. She explained that those over 50 “want to be portrayed in advertising in the way they see themselves” – rather than depicted as aged and fairly immobile. They want to see their rich lived experiences and interests depicted and not to be seen as a monolith of a community.

At large, the world of marketing and advertising is seeing positive momentum toward more explicit values-based messaging and better, more humanistic representation, according to Nielsen’s de Armas. “There’s a really strong social piece around it. The privilege of this time … is the intersection of social justice and [our] work. There’s an opportunity to bring your personal self to this work. We get to bring this piece of activism in and change media for the better. Advertising can be a tool for change.”

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Work & Wellbeing Brand Purpose Diversity & Inclusion

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