Diversity in advertising: the art of being self-aware and giving a damn

By Ande Milinyte, Research manager



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September 9, 2020 | 5 min read

Diversity. A powerful and sometimes paralysing word, one that is both heralded and feared by people in advertising. To a lot of us, it seems like such a straightforward, obvious thing to do – but it’s one that has gone wrong so, so many times. Often, diversity is feared to such an extent that it leads to inaction – but when action does happen, it’s often through stereotyping or tokenism.

Karsten Wurth

But we are in the year 2020. The year that has already shaken the world with a global pandemic and massive protests for Black Lives Matter, highlighting the challenges of an evergrowing population that is still shackled by systemic errors and injustices.

As the Black Lives Matter movement is met with (mostly) unity and a promise to do better, how can brands do their bit now and in the future?

It’s not a question of what brands should do first to become more diverse – it’s a question of why they’re not doing it all yet. In 2020, diversity should be a hygiene factor.

First, there’s the internal systems, those that are not visible to the consumer’s eye. Do they have diversity when it comes to their management and employees? And no, ‘diversity of thought’ doesn’t count. Have they set targets for supporting diversity? Have they implemented unconscious bias training?

And then there’s the one that goes straight to the consumer – advertising. Diversity in advertising, by its very definition, isn’t just about one thing – it’s not just about gender, age, race, sexual identity, disability or ethnicity. It’s about all of those factors – and much more.

Top 10 brands that cater to diverse groups of people:

  1. Facebook
  2. Amazon
  3. eBay
  4. Deliveroo
  5. McDonald's
  6. Vodafone
  7. TK Maxx
  8. BBC
  9. Google
  10. YouTube

Don’t get me wrong – diversity in advertising does exist. But visible presence is not enough – just because you have diverse groups of people in your advertising, doesn’t mean you are being representative or inclusive. Or nondiscriminatory, for that matter.

No one wants to be Volkswagen right now. In May 2020, Volkswagen had to apologise for their new car ad that – in hindsight – they have admitted was ‘inappropriate and tasteless’. The now-withdrawn ad showed a pair of giant white hands flicking a black man into a café called ‘petit colon‘ – French for ‘little colonist’.

Yep, they really aired that – and only realised their ‘mistake’ when it was pointed out to them by shocked and outraged consumers. An internal investigation within VW revealed that while there was no ‘racist intent’ among their staff, there was a lack of ‘intercultural sensitivity‘ and diversity within their marketing department, hence why the racist connotations were not detected before the video aired.

But there are brands out there that are already doing diversity well – and they’re doing it by bringing self-awareness to the table.

In 2018, Google carried out a deep-dive into the quantity and quality of diversity in their marketing campaigns. To be objective, they asked the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a non-profit that researches gender representation in media to analyse race, gender and socioeconomic diversity in their advertising.

What they discovered was lots of racial diversity – but not enough socioeconomic diversity. “Everyone looked like they worked in tech and lived in hip, urban neighbourhoods”, Google’s chief marketer Lorraine Twohill noted. However, gender representation was also amiss: “My team brought me a new campaign to review. Dad was cooking in the kitchen. Great! I was proud that they had flipped a stereotype. But the next image showed he was there because mom was in the hospital having a baby. Sorry, dad, but we had to reshoot. Mom was away because she was on a business trip.”

Aware of their lack of representation, Google launched a training course to tackle diversity in its campaigns, and by June 2018, 90% of the company and 200 of its agency partners had completed the course.

At the end of the day, diversity in advertising is not difficult to achieve. All we need to do is be aware, empathise, and speak up. And that’s a hell of a lot easier to do if you have diverse people in your team to call you out on it, and an environment in which calling out inequality is not just acceptable, but encouraged.

Download the full report here.

Ande Milinyte is research manager at Opinium.


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