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Closing the representation gap in digital advertising

Dave Jones of True Digital on the representation gap in digital advertising / Rishabh Dharmani via Unsplash

Advertisers are becoming more aware of their role in showcasing diversity. But, as Dave Jones of The Drum Network member agency True argues for our Deep Dive on Marketing and the Marginalized, a representation gap still exists. Closing it will benefit communities and brands alike.

Stories matter. They affect how we view ourselves, each other and our place in the world.

If we don’t see people who look like us in the media – even the ads in a social media feed – then we take the message that we’re unimportant. Invisible.

When we only see people who look like us portrayed as negative, two-dimensional stereotypes, we take the message that maybe there’s something wrong with us too.

For decades, academics have been analyzing the effects of underrepresentation and misrepresentation in traditional media. Now research into digital channels is catching up. The findings make for depressing reading.

Studies commissioned by Facebook and YouTube into the campaigns on their platforms in the UK have found that, despite lofty brand pledges around diversity and inclusion, online ads fail to represent society.

When people from marginalized groups are featured, too often it’s in a way that reinforces negative stereotypes around gender, race, disability and sexuality.

It’s time the industry faces up to the representation gap in digital advertising.

How big is the gap?

In a review of over 2.7m videos, Google found that women accounted for just 34% of screentime in YouTube ads in the UK. Female characters who did feature were much younger than men, less likely to be shown with an occupation, and less likely to be shown in a leadership role.

Similarly, Facebook found that female characters were 14 times more likely than male characters to be shown in revealing clothing, and far more likely to be verbally or physically objectified. Male characters were much more likely to be shown working or in an office.

People with a disability accounted for just 1.1% of all characters, despite making up around 18% of the UK population.

When researchers asked participants to describe the negative representations they encountered in Facebook ads, some worrying themes emerged. They felt that members of diverse racial communities are often portrayed as gangsters, that gay and trans people are sexualized or shunned, and that ads featuring professional, high-income office-based characters were overwhelmingly white.

Digital advertising looks more like the 1950s than the 2020s.

Why should we care?

Creating an inclusive online experience for everyone in society is a moral good in itself. But it isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s a way of giving yourself a competitive advantage.

Working alongside ParalympicsGB and TeamGB on UK Sport’s athlete recruitment campaign, we at True Digital were tasked with motivating a diverse audience of young people to apply for a sporting development program.

We found that relatable creative was key to inspiring our audience. People wanted to see people who looked and sounded like them, and had been through the same challenges.

By featuring both able-bodied and disabled ambassadors from different racial, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and showing them in positive, stereotype-busting scenarios, we were able to encourage applications from audiences who had traditionally been hard to engage.

But what can we do about it?

1. Don’t delegate your responsibility to algorithms

Part of the challenge is built into the way digital platforms work. Facebook’s algorithms are designed to maximize immediate reactions. They don’t care how. If ads featuring white or able-bodied characters generate higher engagement rates, they’ll get shown more frequently.

If digital advertisers aren’t careful, it’s easy to get drawn into that feedback loop and end up A/B testing representation out of a campaign.

So take a stand: show the characters and stories you want to show. Resist the temptation to chase vanity metrics. Be confident that if your creative resonates with your audience, you’ll see the benefits.

2. Build representation into project plans

I know how the industry operates. We are tight on time, have limited budgets and demanding targets. Representation can be low on the list of priorities, and is easily sacrificed in the name of hitting deadlines.

But it’s in everybody’s interest (audience, clients and industry) to push back and build in representation.

That might mean investing extra planning time to research the nuances of your audience’s lifestyles, or insisting on using original photography if you can’t find good, representative stock imagery, or allowing extra time to cast actors from non-traditional sources.

3. Increase representation within the industry

The best way to create representative digital ads is to make sure a diverse range of people are involved in making them.

Reach’s research shows just how much of an elite and homogenous bubble the ad industry is, and how far we’ve got to go. But right now, anyone involved in educating, hiring and developing the next generation of marketers can make a difference.

Only if we can close the representation gap within the industry can we close the gap in the content we create.

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