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Advertising Diversity & Inclusion

Why an obsession for tick-box diversity has taken the soul out of inclusivity

By Tom Barbour, head of international



Opinion article

July 31, 2018 | 5 min read

In recent years, there have been a multitude of questions around how businesses approach the concept of diversity. There has been a surge in efforts to try and recreate a more diverse world in adverts. At its heart, this is a good thing: brands we recognize, day-in-day out, affirm sexualities and gender differences by including them in day-to-day situations. It’s a powerful tool of ‘normalisation’ - making diversity ‘every-day’ but without making it mundane.

diversity - pexels

Why an obsession for tick-box diversity has taken the soul out of inclusivity

The crux of the issue: stereotypes

But as ever, how it’s done makes a huge impact. More than a few advertisers have made massive blunders on this front e.g. we all remember Protein World’s ‘Are you beach ready?’

Often these come from a desire to simply ‘look tolerant’ without putting all the necessary research and thought in. But equally, and less obviously, this stems from looking at minorities through the eyes of the ‘majority’. Where data is involved, this can lead us to ‘enhance’ demographic data with the assumptions we have from daily life. All too often, this essentially means we end up stereotyping right from the word go – at the data level – and taking these stereotypes on into the creatives we produce – whether it’s mums with nappies, and cleaning products, or Dads with beer and motor oil. We take raw data and create a narrative around it which matches our own perception of the world – when in fact there’s no evidence for it.

Diversity isn’t an exercise in ticking boxes

All this is a result of a wider view on diversity. It’s become an exercise in ticking boxes, which has taken the real soul and meaning out of inclusivity. It’s simply being diverse for the sake of it. In being inclusive, we ought to make the industry – and everything that’s part of it –represent the world as it is. That means, exactly as the data shows it, there’s no space for our assumptions on gender and sexuality. Our data should be taken for what it is, and our creatives should affirm to communities that we recognise they exist not just in kitschy sepia-toned ads but in the real world – that we value them and the contribution they make to our society, and not just as tokens in an ad to make brands look good and feel better.

Often, this means involving the very people you’re attempting to represent. Just last week, we marked the Stonewall riots at pride, a seminal event in gay history and culture stretching back thousands of years. LGBTQ+ culture is a heritage that continues to play a role in the day-to-day reality of gay people. It’s wide-reaching, rich, diverse, and yet full of oppression, and struggle. Every representation needs to take this into account. You can empathise, but you can never walk in someone else’s shoes, and this makes ‘representation’ a hard task. We’ve seen brands like Coca Cola successfully engage with this kind of representation this summer with their campaign “This Coke is a Fanta”, busting a discriminatory expression which has tormented gay people in Brazil for years. Clearly, it’s possible for brands to engage with diversity messages in the right way, but it does take effort, time and more than ticking boxes.

Demo is dead

What this means for brands is, when you approach your creatives or the audience you may think your target, be mindful that your view is just the tip of the iceberg. Do more with your data. Don’t presume you know someone because you have their base demographics. You can’t condense people into a stereotype. There’s a whole world of behaviours, thoughts, opinions, preferences, mindsets which demographics simply don’t cover. Whether people tend to shop, go out with friends or are heavy gym-goers, location and behavioural data can be far superior than categories people get slotted into demographically. Where people go reveals their habits and what they’re likely to enjoy the most, so don’t miss out on these insights. And when it comes to your creatives, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons – and that you really think it through. Be mindful that many in the industry have become over reliant on demographics when targeting audiences, which in turn fails to reflect the eclectic nature of society in the way we deliver ads.

Tom Barbour is the group head of International at Blis

Advertising Diversity & Inclusion

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