Getting to Diversity and Inclusion: Authenticity, Accountability and Action

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Written by: Majbritt Rijs & Yumi Prentice

“Diversity and inclusion – It’s the trend,” everyone says. And every conference, every industry award, every professional organization you can swing a cat at will have something dedicated to a subject that one short decade ago barely existed outside the ivory towers of academia and the underworld of rights activists. This modern brand of equality and rights is newer than YouTube and Facebook, and yet it’s already as ubiquitous.

And so, it should be, because it’s about bloody time. Especially now when rights are being taken away from other groups faster and more furiously than ever before.

Calling it a trend is dangerous. Diversity and inclusion aren’t like facial hair or designer pet-carrier bags; it’s the inalienable right of all people and a fundamental requirement for a progressive, civilized and equitable society. It matters, a lot.

As marketers and advertisers, we shape the world around us. We may think that we reflect reality, and we do, but we also create it. The people we showcase and the way in which we represent them tell our audiences what society deems right, and wrong.

But don’t take our opinion as read; listen to the someone who is more special – customers.

They think ads matter, in ways we as advertisers and marketers may not always consider. In our recent edition of Project Eden, where we canvass 2000 consumers from across the UK, people told us that advertisers and brands have the power to change how people see themselves and others.

They also said that ‘the people brands put in their ads tell me who the brand thinks are valuable and important’ and a third said they believe that ‘ads influence how we treat other people’. The campaigns we create are social signifiers of other people’s value and place in society, whether we like it or not.

Clearly, this stuff matters. Morally and, if that doesn’t compel us, financially. Our findings that one in four Britons say ‘sexist brand advertising puts them off buying from that brand’ should resonate.

We have more power than we realize, and with power comes responsibility.

How are we doing, overall? Not great. Despite the ASA’s recent ban on ‘harmful’ gender stereotypes in advertising, presently, as an industry, we’re not always hitting the mark. Despite the rhetoric, industry panels, and abundant diversity and inclusion initiatives, our research raised some worrying, if unsurprising, statistics.

Women are twice as likely than men to say that they feel ashamed of their body based on what they’ve seen in ads recently. But men suffer too: one in five men belonging to minority groups say that advertising they’ve seen recently has made them feel excluded.

Overall, there’s room for improvement: fewer than 1 in 10 Britons say the ads they see make them feel good about themselves. If a campaign doesn’t make viewers come away feeling good about themselves, can we really chalk that up as a successful campaign?

So how ought we deliver on that responsibility?

Firstly, to deliver on it in any credible, meaningful and sustainable way, the industry must first change from within. We’ve got a long way to go in the advertising business, but the good news is that we are moving forward. The #TimesUp movement erupted in January 2018 in response to the #MeToo crisis, and the need for systemic change after decades-long abuses in the entertainment industry and beyond.  #TimesUpAdvertising came to life two months later, with 180 C-suite women in the advertising business aimed at discussing and addressing the industry’s pervasive problems with sexual harassment and gender inequality. This is absolutely significant because any real delivery on diversity and inclusion needs to start with a fundamental and systemic upheaval of the system.

We believe that there is no better time to be in this business than right now, because the angst is no longer simmering underground. Instead, we’re at a critical inflection point that we’ve never seen before, where the agencies, advertisers and consumers are all demanding real change

Often people use the words diversity and inclusion interchangeably, but the reality is that they are completely different, and one doesn’t lead to the other. We must hold ourselves accountable to diversifying our talent pool – initiatives and organizations in the US like the 3% Movement, Free the Bid, and #SeeHer have not only galvanized so many agencies and advertisers, but have found ways for companies to operationalize those hiring and procurement practices into HR and finance.

Of course, we’ll likely lose the very talent we’re fighting to bring in if we continue to treat them like shit. And that includes everything from harassment to making other groups conform to an industry built around the lifestyle and values of the old-school patriarchy. This is where inclusion is so vital; we can never achieve real change in how and what we communicate, until we can see, hear, value and respect perspectives and experiences that may be totally different from our own – and learn how to turn those into the sorts of campaigns that are much more resonant with a society that is urging us to show them that we see them, and we respect them.

Brands now, more than ever, must appeal to audiences whose purchase decisions are increasingly made based on shared values in what the brands not just say they stand for – but demonstrate they stand for.

And demonstrating this, through action, means representing everyone and portraying them honorably and with respect: giving them an equal share of voice, power and status, something that is sadly still lacking.

Whilst the actual stats vary, the story today is pretty clear. People in ads are white and middle class, unless there is a specific role that is stereotypically associated with people of color, in which case they are included. Mostly we use men in our ads, unless we’re talking about sex, or parenting, in which case we bring in a woman. People with disabilities? Gay people? Transgender people? The latter two are useful during Pride but they aren’t regular participants in ads about investing for retirement or buying a new mobile phone or doing anything, dare we say it, “normal”.

Tokenism cannot be underestimated as a problem. It undermines D&I efforts and generates cynicism. A Lloyds Banking Group study last year found that while BAME representation in advertising has grown from 12% to 25% over the past 3 years, just 7% of ads positioned people from the BAME community as the sole, or main protagonist, and 3 in 5 ads still feature all or mostly white people.

Our own research validates this: Fewer than 10% of people have recently seen ads that they feel include people from all walks of life and groups across the UK. Most people said they couldn’t see themselves, or their friends and families in the ads they’ve seen, and this was even more marked for LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities.

It’s been proposed that younger audiences feel at home in YouTube, tic toc and Instagram because they see themselves more thoroughly and realistically represented, and because without commissioning editors’ unconscious biases, more freedom and individuality in content can emerge. Whilst we don’t know if that’s true, those channels certainly are full of far more raw, imperfect, diverse and authentic people than traditional broadcasters’ content. They showcase and give a voice to what we have come to think of as the ‘normal different’ groups that are so often disenfranchised.

“Normal different”? Yes, because, let’s be honest, middle class / educated / straight / non-disabled white cis males are no longer (if ever they really were) the singular majority: They are just the group that have through history held the power. If you allow for the crossover of minority status and all the many ‘other’ groups out there, this traditional ‘majority’ demographic is no more or less prevalent than the other groups that have so long been marginalized.

Across the world there are more people of color than whites, and even in traditionally white countries now there are more millennials of color today than ever before, and this will continue to be the case.

Likewise, statistics for the prevalence of disabilities might surprise you (they did us), and they demonstrate the point aptly: according to the most recent UK government figures more than one in five people in the UK have a disability. We haven’t counted but we don’t think 20% of the people in British campaigns have disabilities.

We’re being harsh, yes, but the truth is, by and large, campaigns today don’t represent the real world around us. Not fairly. Not ubiquitously. Not authentically. We should all be adult enough to acknowledge that and to listen to audiences and what they want.

Majbritt Rijs

Managing Director at The Numbers Lab

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