‘Regardless of how woke a brand is, portraying intersectionality is tricky’

As part of The Drum‘s Deep Dive into Marketing and the Marginalized, Elvis strategy director Camilla Yates asks: “If there’s a clear business benefit to representing intersectionality within advertising, why aren’t more brands doing it?”

I asked a representative sample of 500 UK adults whether they identified as a minority. 41% did and 40% of those people identified as more than one type of minority. That’s roughly 11 million people in the UK alone.

When I then asked whether these people felt represented by advertising, 50% of those who didn’t identify as a minority said they always or often felt represented. This plummeted by half, to 25%, for those who identified as a minority, and to just 16% for those who identified as more than one minority.

A whopping 42% of those who identified as more than one minority said they never or rarely felt represented in advertising. This highlights one of the biggest challenges of inclusive marketing – how do brands reach and authentically resonate with people who intersect multiple diversities?

The term ‘intersectionality‘ was coined over 30 years ago by Kimberlé Crenshaw. She describes it as: “A lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.”

Advertising has traditionally taken a rather one-dimensional view of people (the word ‘consumer’ is a good example of how ingrained this one-dimensionality is), but intersectionality demands that advertising shows people with multiple intersecting identities.

A recent piece of global research by The Unstereotype Alliance found that advertising that represents people across a variety of social categorizations resonates with all consumers, not just the minorities represented in the ads. It also found that intersectional advertising grows and deepens consumers‘ ties with a brand, with more impact found among individuals from traditionally marginalized groups.

So, if there’s a clear business benefit to representing intersectionality within advertising, why aren’t more brands doing it?

Regardless of how ‘woke’ a brand’s marketing team or agency is, portraying intersectionality is tricky. In a world dominated by single-mindedness and snackable content, communicating more than one thing of any kind is challenging, especially with a finite budget.

Looking through a lens of just one particular form of diversity still generalizes people within that group. But representing the full complexity of a human being, while taking an equitable, non-tokenistic approach to showing minorities that have been traditionally underserved, and avoiding stereotypes across the board can feel like an impossible task.

One way to tackle the challenge is to go back to the fundamentals of marketing and develop values-orientated creative that connects with people on the level of the deep universal truth. This cuts through complexity and uses storytelling to unite an audience of unique individuals. Using your creative to positively represent underserved individuals not only ensures this broadcast approach is as broad in its appeal as possible – helping to normalize the marginalized also has a societal benefit.

Amazon’s 2021 Christmas ad, focused on kindness, and Coca Cola’s, which tells a story of community togetherness, are good examples of this inclusive approach, where some intersectional minorities are represented within the narrative but the story itself is not focused on diversity. Brands can also represent a number of different separate diversities in one narrative. Cadbury Creme Egg’s Golden Goobilee ad and McCain’s Teatime-focused spot are both effective examples of this type of storytelling.

And there are some campaigns where intersectional representation is more of a focus for the creative. Relate’s recent campaign ‘Let’s talk the joy of later life sex’ is a great example of this – older couples and singles starred in warm, humorous and human executions that turned a number of potential drawbacks of older age into positive stories. A diverse selection of people ensured that other intersectional identities were represented, in a way that felt natural, and not at all tokenistic.

A traditional broadcast approach to creative can only go so far – portraying one or two intersecting diversities. And even though there’s a ‘halo’ of positive effect for brands that take intersectional approaches, there will remain a huge number of people who feel underserved and overlooked by traditional creative.

Alternatively, brands could leverage data to create multiple pieces of creative that speak to different audiences within a campaign with specifically targeted creative. Leveraging demographic, behavioral and contextual signals opens up opportunities to explore human complexities in new ways and resonate with people on a more personalized level.

This tech-enabled approach is sometimes known as ‘empathy at scale’, and if creative, tech and media work together symbiotically, it can create opportunities to resonate with complex individuals within segments, or on a one-to-one basis. Oreo’s Covid campaign, ‘Stay home. Stay playful’, is a good example of a global brand using this approach to ensure local cultural relevance in order to remain authentic as it scaled beyond its origin region in the Middle East and Africa.

However, using data to target minorities is a risky strategy. Aside from privacy and bias concerns, there is potential to misuse sensitive data, commercialize a marginalized minority or misattribute a classification based on bad data – all of which can have hugely a negative impact on brands and the people they target.

Facebook has recently banned ads targeting race, sexual orientation and religion in order to prevent companies from abusing its targeting options, and both Facebook and Google have in the past faced criticism for allowing ads that use their systems to target racist sentiments. A solid brand safety strategy combined with a human approach to communication is key to ensuring that any tech-enabled intersectional targeting has a positive effect.

Until we can be certain that using data to resonate with people on a complex, intersectional level will have a positive rather than negative effect, leveraging a simplified approach that combines universally relatable insights with one or two diversity lenses feels like the best way to make a positive impact, from a human, brand and societal perspective. And while this may not be the most intersectional approach to intersectionality, it is far more beneficial than only speaking to the mainstream majority.

Camilla Yates is strategy director at Elvis