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Study holds up a mirror to video ad creative’s lack of diversity & backwards movement

By Michael Nutley | Writer for The Drum

December 27, 2022 | 10 min read

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Video advertising in North America is more ‘pale and male’ than it has been since 2019, according to new analysis of 1m ads by global media delivery platform Extreme Reach. Melinda McLaughlin, the company’s CMO, shares how the analysis was done, what it means, and what happens next.

New study holds up a mirror to video ad creative’s lack of diversity and backwards movement

Artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze ads

Extreme Reach recently published research showing that white men still dominate the casts of video commercials deployed in the US and Canada.

The report, Diversity in Ad Creative, reveals that 73% of actors appearing in video ad creative in 2022 were white, more than in 2021 or 2020, and male actors are far more common in ads than female actors. The same is true for the voices we hear in video ads, 73% of which are male. At the same time, 20-39-year-olds were massively over-represented in video advertising. Over three-quarters (78%) of actors in ads fall into that age group, compared to just 27% of the US population.

As the global leader in campaign creative logistics, Extreme Reach delivers the vast majority of video ads in North America. The company leveraged artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze ads for the composition of their cast by ethnicity, race, gender and age.

The Drum caught up with Melinda McLaughlin, chief marketing officer at Extreme Reach, to find out more about the research and the technology behind it.

What spurred the production of the report in the first place?

Marketers wield enormous power to affect cultural norms, and global marketers – and the world at large – are very focused on this issue of diversity because it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s good business. There is a growing need to understand the way the industry portrays and plays back to society what our world looks like today.

This report grew out of the work we’re already doing with big global brands who are very focused on representation inside ad creative. As we perfected and validated our proprietary methodology with our clients, we felt ready to aggregate findings across all the creative assets under ER management and put that out to the industry as a large-scale benchmark report. Our clients have been able to measure against their own goals and trends over the years, but what was missing prior to this was an industry and vertical baseline that allows marketers to compare and contrast their unique results to an aggregated benchmark.

How did you approach the technology side?

The first thing we did was look at the available resources and robust work being done in this use of artificial intelligence to identify diversity in video content. Two projects that are doing really impressive work and making their APIs public are The FairFace Project and DeepFace. Our product director, Analytics & AI, Andrew Blake, led robust testing of those AI models, and he found they were both very good, but not good enough as it related to specifically analyzing advertising sight, sound, and motion. They were roughly 70-80% accurate in assigning gender, age, race/ethnicity to the unique people inside ad creative.

Using our own review tool and a panel of diverse human reviewers across the world, we analyzed thousands of assets with low-confidence predictions, to manually correct the data and improve precision. By feeding these more accurate assignments back into our machine learning models, we reached 96% precision.

How surprised were you by the results?

We were surprised that the representation for all three measures – gender, age and race/ethnicity – lags behind the intention spoken about in the industry. It surprised me personally because in watching TV and streaming video, I feel that I see diverse representation in advertising.

We were also intrigued with the downward trends in 2022 after seeing progress in representation the years prior. We chose to analyze such a robust sample, over four years, in order to present findings before, during, and after the height of the pandemic. But also, to provide substantive trend data. The industry made clear progress in 2020 and 2021. Advertising was more diverse, less white, slightly older, and a bit better on the male/female skew.

Then, in 2022, a lot of those trends reversed. Things got less diverse. That’s a disappointment for all the right reasons, in that we’re talking about it so much and there’s so much work we’re all doing collectively to do what’s right for business, but we don’t see reflected in these results.

What are you hoping people will take away from the research?

We hope it provides the data that marketers need to set measurable goals and strategies for progress in this area. Ultimately, our mission as a company is to help our clients make better business decisions based on data and insight. Our hope is that this ground-breaking study accelerates their ability to do that in the area of representation in ad creative and fills the glaring gap in large-scale benchmarks so they have solid comparatives.

What sort of response have you had so far?

The wide release of our findings is definitely sparking some shock and surprise. I think we all, collectively, thought it would reveal more diversity in race and ethnicity than it does. For those devoted to making progress in representation, this data is an indication that more work needs to be done. For brand marketers who’ve been focused on this for several years, their own results likely show a higher level of representation than we see in the aggregate data.

The other area we see strong reactions and amplification in social media is on the gender skews in advertising. There are a number of non-profit organizations and teams working specifically on driving progress in gender equality in advertising. When we released our findings widely, we saw quick response to the dominant male composition trends, both with respect to who we see on screen and who we hear, and a rallying cry to the industry to do better.

What’s next?

Now that we have a robust baseline for North America, first up is expanding this into the next set of regions. This is underway and we expect to release that in the first half of 2023. Beyond regional expansion, we’re also hard at work on expanding the things we can confidently measure to introduce new reporting areas.

Our Insights team is exploring how we might measure different body types and the presence of people with disabilities.

In addition, as the leading talent payment and global rights management solution for the ad industry, we have the data to explore how diversity may or may not differ by segmenting principal actors in ads versus extras.

Then there is the fascinating area of who performs which actions in ads? Who’s reaching for the product on the shelf? Or loading the dishwasher? If the ad’s set in an auto dealer, who seems to be talking to the person who’s selling the car? Who is sitting in the financial advisor’s office? The list goes on. We’re excited to explore this area to see how ad creative is, or isn’t, breaking old stereotypes.

And of course we’ll publish regular updates to continue to track benchmarks over time. This is most definitely not a one-off. It’s the start of a brand new day as it relates to large-scale benchmarks to power the global ad industry in their creative pursuits ahead.

To read more about Extreme Reach's study, click here.

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Extreme Reach

Extreme Reach (ER) is the global leader in creative logistics. Its end-to-end technology platform moves creative at the speed of media, simplifying the activation and optimization of omnichannel campaigns for brands and agencies with unparalleled control, visibility and insights.

One global creative-to-media supply chain answers the challenges of a complex marketing landscape and an equally complicated infrastructure under the global advertising ecosystem. The company’s groundbreaking solution integrates all forms of linear TV and non-linear video workflow seamlessly with talent payments and rights management. Now, brands and agencies can optimize campaigns as fast as consumer consumption shifts across linear TV, CTV, OTT, addressable TV, mobile, desktop, and video-on-demand.

Extreme Reach connects brand content with consumers across media types and markets, fully illuminating the marketing supply chain for a clear view of creative usage, waste, performance and ROI.

With the acquisition of Adstream, Extreme Reach operates in 140 countries and 45 languages, with 1,100 team members serving 90 of the top 100 global advertisers and enabling $150 billion in video ad spend around the world. More than half a billion creative brand assets are managed in ER’s creative logistics platform.

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