OK let’s get this out of the way before we start. This is a column about ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ written by a straight, white, middle-aged, middle-class man. I do have a bit of disability but aside from that, I have privilege and power written right through me. So, please feel free to stop reading, reach for the comments section equivalent of the green biro and tweet. Oh and be warned, I’m on a panel at Advertising Week Europe with my (diverse) students and representatives of the Advertising Week NewGen Advisory Council discussing this stuff.
If you’re still with me…
Black History Month is the excuse for strokey-beard musings about how far and how fast we have come, as well as celebrating the “monumental creative accomplishments made by people of color throughout the discipline’s history”.
Similarly, advertising patriarchy is on water-cooler and even boardroom agendas as pay gaps are revealed. My panel will not be the only one at Advertising Week Europe to discuss diversity. The industry, like academia, is talking about it – partly because it sees the potential and opportunities, and probably, in part, because of good old-fashioned guilt.
Talking is good. Raising voices is good. Heh, a bit of guilt ain’t bad. But we know that action is needed. The problem – for educational ad professionals and industry ad pros – is specifically what to do. Now here’s where I lose more readers who ask pointedly why the voice of privilege should advise the structurally marginalised.
My aim is to understand what the privileged can do.
My aim is not to tell my female, LGBT, BAME, working-class, neuro-diverse or otherwise ‘other’, students how to fight nor run that fight for them. Nor is it the job of the similarly privileged in the industry to do that for the ‘othered’ NewGen in their internship programme. My aim is to understand what the privileged can do.
For those with C-suite power (in universities or business), it is, of course, a no-brainer to ensure the institutional systems and practices enable and empower those within them. Identity-blind HR practices and zero-tolerance of discrimination, harassment and assault are a basic foundation. There’s a role not for quotas but for initiatives that look to get everyone onto an equal footing to compete. There are organisations like Jolt that can help.
But it is not just bosses that need to act of course. Front-line ad professionals and teachers face calls to action, too.
The blurb for a recent LSE debate claims that “students across the world are calling for the decolonisation of the curricula”. No less a figure than Meghan Markle has joined the chorus (amplified ironically by the Daily Mail). And of course, if Melanie Phillips is attacking it, you know it’s important and probably worth thinking about.
There is a parallel between the over-simplified “decolonise the curriculum” clarion call in academia and the “we need diversity” generalisations thrown at the industry whether that is in terms of work produced or workers producing. Both discourses oversimplify and let us off the hook with individual or institutional rather than structural changes. Here progress is a change in the reading list or work highlighted; different faces and body shapes in the foreground or the office. Liberals can set up quotas, ‘initiatives’ and prizes; racists, sexists and homophobes can nod through tokens, sure in the knowledge that no power relations have been reconfigured. Nothing has changed.
Now I’m not just a straight, white, middle-aged, middle-class man with a limp. I’m also a bit of a Marxist. I believe that the sort of structures of power that give rise to the sort of non-diverse, non-inclusive advertising industry, training and work that is not only wrong, out of touch but also frankly boring are deeper than one ad-industry Weinstein or even ‘institutionalised’ discrimination. The patriarchy that enables gender discrimination; the globalised post-colonialism that sets race discrimination in motion, and the capitalism that marginalises working class newgen aren’t going to change with talk, nor simply with policies, programmes and new priorities. The structures aren’t going anywhere any time soon but that doesn’t mean there can’t be change at deeper scales than the individual and the institution. And this is where the privileged can play a role.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal initiative perhaps offers a model. Ocasio-Cortez knows that the environmental crisis (discrimination against the planet) is not just individual (me and my car) nor simply institutional (a particular oil company) it is structural, woven into the fabric of society, the economy and culture. As well as concrete proposals to address those individual and institutional practices, processes and priorities, the Green New Deal looks to change the discourse. The simple tactic of calling out climate delayers rather than giving them the legitimacy of ‘denial’, delegitimates their discourses and the structures that support it. It doesn’t topple the structures of Big Oil capitalism but it denies it some space to operate.
Structural race, gender and class inequality within our industry can be similarly undermined. An Ad Industry New Deal can make concrete demands and hold the industry’s individual and institutional straight, white, male toes to the fire but it can also own the discourse, change the agenda and carve out a new way of imagining advertising.
The curricula I and my industry partners create does not need decolonising it needs reimagining. It does not need diversity adding, let alone teaching. As part of its mission to practice-research its way to the future of advertising it needs to empower its students to imagine that future, to carve out new practices and ways of working and talking that delegitimate structural sameness. I run my course. I have the power to create a space for that, a space that denies that this is what the industry is. This doesn’t guarantee my BAME student will get a job or my woman student will get a promotion but it empowers them to imagine that and therefore to expect that. It calls out diversity delayers.
Similarly, the industry can go beyond policy and practice institutional change to work with activists on and off the payroll to counter structures that normalise exclusion. Middle and lower level managers have the power to create spaces that deny the legitimacy of the mono, that decry sameness as boring. Patriarchy, post-colonialism and the other structures survive in part because they normalise. To see, to name and to undermine those structures is to attack their foundations. To judge by the fear that those structures have of the likes of Ocasio-Cortez, that is powerful.