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Inclusivity in advertising has gone wrong, but here’s how it can be fixed

By Mike Alhadeff | Senior strategist

April 14, 2022 | 6 min read

AMV BBDO’s Mike Alhadeff argues that inclusive advertising creative has so far failed to move past tokenism or condescension. Is there a solution?

I have athetoid cerebral palsy. But I’m also a white male, went to Cambridge and now work as part of the metropolitan elite (aka the advertising industry). So, a bit of a mixed bag really. Oh, and I’ve never really left the M25.

The irony of today is that inclusion is talked about more than ever across the industry. Inclusion is now seen as an important part of every brief we answer, but however well-intentioned, the results have so far been mixed.

gillette

‘High and mighty’: Gillette’s ‘The Best A Man Can Be’ campaign from 2019 / Gillette

Recent examples of where it has gone wrong include Gillette’s ill-conceived high and mighty attempt to tackle modern masculinity to M&S’s blatant tokenism in creating the ‘LGBT Sandwich’. It means that, while progress has undoubtedly been made, the pursuit of inclusion can sometimes mean we are falling into a series of misconceptions and fallacies.

First and foremost, the race for inclusion falls foul of basic strategic logic. The need to represent everyone often gets (mis-)interpreted as the need to appeal to everyone. But by that logic, every brand would be the same. Strategy is often about making choices, and sometimes that means it is beneficial to be exclusive, even necessary.

Inclusion doesn’t mean you can’t be exclusive. The two are often presented as binary opposites. However, by trying to stand for everyone, you risk standing for no-one. Brands are by definition exclusive. They are as much defined as who they are for as who they are against (but within your target, you can definitely have a diverse cast of people). It is their exclusive nature which makes brands appealing in the first place.

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Secondly, the desire for inclusion often sees the need to bring several groups together in the spirit of that you must be as inclusive as possible. Again, however well-intentioned this may be, it can often be problematic. You risk grouping many different groups into the ‘inclusivity’ bracket when the underlying challenges specific groups may face, and the solutions to them, may be very different. A single inclusivity approach clearly doesn’t work.

It often seems that in the spirit of inclusivity, it is somehow unjust to exclude others. But again, this resistance to specificity risks alienating some groups further, rather than making feel more included. The spirit of inclusivity shouldn’t mean difficult choices are shirked over how and who we should target.

Thirdly, when looking to be more inclusive, our understanding of the audience(s) we are looking to target can often be misconceived. Much of the trust behind the inclusion debate is that we need to appeal those who have been disadvantaged or not considered previously. But here lies another simplistic assumption – that somehow we need to help these people, rather than be aspirational. Or if aspiration is presented, it is in terms of overcoming adversity or challenges.

However, these groups are equally nuanced as any other group, both from a socio-economic and cultural perspective. In other words, their disadvantage may not be absolute. Yes, they may have faced disadvantage in aspects of their lives, but in others they may just be as exclusive in nature (or at least aspiring to be) as anybody else. So, for example, a disabled guy may like to indulge in Fred Perry or exotic trips to South America.

If that’s the rant, what is the way forward or solution? Again, here the irony is that it might have been under our noses all along. I am, of course, talking about the big ideas that makes advertising famous. The Snickers ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’. The Guinness ‘Good things come to those who wait’. The BT ‘It’s good to talk’.

What we are really referring to then is the ‘inclusivity of ideas’.

And this is where the real power lies. These are ideas which have the ability to appeal to anybody, no matter their sex, creed or disability, but don’t necessarily feel the need to show a mirror up to society. They tap into universal truths, whether that’s the feeling of hunger, anticipation or connection, which can resonate with anyone. Of course, inclusivity could and should be weaved in at points, for example at casting, but fundamentally these ideas are ‘inclusivity agonistic’ when it comes to their inception.

Because here’s the paradox about inclusivity – sometimes you are most inclusive when you don’t even think about inclusivity (or dare I even say it, when you start to exclude). The industry has rightly shone a light on inclusion in the last five years and will hopefully continue to make great strides. But in order to do this, it should perhaps focus on big creative ideas which are genuinely inclusive to everyone. And then the rest should follow.

Mike Alhadeff is a senior strategist at AMV BBDO.

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