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Work & Wellbeing Diversity & Inclusion Diversity and Inclusion

If the ad industry can turn Santa red, what other social constructs can it change?

By Ally Owen | founder

December 10, 2021 | 6 min read

Writing as part of The Drum‘s Deep Dive into Marketing and the Marginalized, Brixton Finishing School founder Ally Owens says we need to continue to invest in driving inclusion and equity across all groups of talent.


We must work together to unpick the excluding constructs and stereotypes that persist across our ecosystem, says Ally Owen

Why does Santa Claus wear red and white? Because three decades of Coca-Cola’s advertising campaigns standardized it as a cultural norm in the 1930s.

It’s a seasonal reminder of the significant power of advertising and media to set up and cement global cultural norms and expectations – just as Coca-Cola cemented the face of Christmas present-giving into a singular image, written across our collective consciousness.

While it’s argued Santa’s original color scheme owes more to ecclesiastical vestments from the fourth century than a brainstorm on Madison Avenue, the red and white suit, body type and facial appearance were fixed and standardized by Swedish artist Haddon Sundblom. His drawings for Coke ads featuring a fat Santa in a red coat trimmed with fur and secured with a large belt have been our ‘shorthand’ for Santa ever since.

Other Santas (for example, Green Santa and the fact he’s actually St Nicholas from Myra in Turkey) were sidelined. Now, those that celebrate Christmas across the globe believe verbatim in the Coca-Cola ‘version,’ a belief that persists long after their belief in Santa himself.

It’s century-old proof that the ad industry can change constructs within society. So, if that’s the case, let’s crack on and create a legacy of inclusion and an end to the marginalization of groups and individuals across our ecosystem. What are we waiting for? Christmas?

It’s a perfect illustration of how a brand’s legacy can impact us all. Brand advertising reinforces and defines what looks ‘beautiful,’ what is ‘professional,’ what behavior, dress, voice, physicality is ‘acceptable.’ The impact of this is especially felt in those that sit outside of these constructs. Those outside are marginalized and at a disadvantage – excluded or not truly included.

It’s time to choose inclusion in our ecosystem

The good news is that we have a choice – whether to fuel the marginalization of groups through reinforcing stereotypes, or choose to disrupt them and create a new set of inclusive cultural norms that benefit all.

We must work together to unpick the excluding constructs and stereotypes that persist across our ecosystem, from the view of the value of consumer demographics to brands to their representation in campaigns and especially in our workplaces.

While research from Unilever and Kantar found that fewer than 20% of people from marginalized communities said they felt represented in advertising within a brand’s message, this is only one dimension of the challenge. Another is representation in the ecosystem that ideates, manufactures and delivers the messages.

There is no doubt in mind that there is a significant percentage of the industry who aren’t interested in change (otherwise it would have happened already). There are also those that are beginning the journey and those that are further down the road. But the statistics warn us that we are going to lose huge swathes of Black and Asian talent due to their experiences in our workplaces. We are sitting watching gold dust fall through our fingers. Not only do we need to work even harder to make this industry a destination for all talents, we need to ensure it’s a destination they wish to take up long-term residence in.

Listen and run

Our annual Brixton Finishing School proprietary research of our graduates, who are placed across all pillars of the industry, showed the number one thing future talent looks for in an employer is diversity, and this includes white talent.

If you are going to start this journey, you need to do it now as those who are further along are beginning to flourish as they become beacons for talent. If you haven’t begun, begin. If you are walking, jog. If you are jogging, run.

But a big barrier to entry is that these young talents say they didn’t even know jobs in the industry existed. Think of our industry as Hogwarts – if you are from a wizarding family you know of it, but if you are a muggle like me you are lucky if you stumble across it.

We are already tackling this dire lack of awareness through ADventure, our schools outreach program. Launched in November, we have, with our 230 industry ADventure volunteers, booked or delivered talks at 35 secondary schools on our ‘multicultural and/or socially mobile’ target list, with another 15 in the pipeline. This is supported by the AD-Cademy program, which aims to overcome regional inequality of access, and Brixton Finishing School itself. We are building a legacy. Bringing talent into the industry is not enough – we are going to work hard to keep our talent in and to see them succeed.

We need to continue to invest in driving inclusion and equity across all groups of talent. 2021 may nearly be done, but the change-makers of 2022 are about to begin. We need you to be a part of it.

After all, once you’ve got a fixed view of Santa from birth it’s pretty hard to update your image of him. I imagine there would be a very heavy bias in the recruiting of a new Santa. Task-based assessments on elf management and delivery/logistics would be up against the desire for fixed physical characteristics and the ability to be a ‘cultural fit’ for Christmas.

We must ask ourselves: how welcome would a different type of Santa be made to feel coming down a chimney into a workplace?

Ally Owens is the founder of Brixton Finishing School.

Work & Wellbeing Diversity & Inclusion Diversity and Inclusion

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