Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

Representation of Diversity Within Advertising

Advertising Agency
London, UK
The second of TMW Unlimited's 2017 Viewpoint articles looks at diversity within advertising

What progress has been made and what’s the next step for brands?

In last year’s Viewpoint we spoke about how advertising and brands need to go beyond stereotypical depictions of diversity and move towards catering for it with the products they produce. Whilst we haven’t achieved that utopian vision just yet, we have started to see a few green shoots appear, reassuring us that we’re heading in the right direction. And whilst there’s still a lot more to do, centres of excellence (e.g. Channel 4 and Unilever) are now starting to lay out the behaviour for other brands to adopt.

Last year, our ‘Diversity in Advertising’ thought piece depicted diversity through mixed gender, body shape and ethnicity, but some of it tended towards the stereotypical and anachronistic. What you could easily term the rainbow-washing phase of diversity advertising.

But this year we’ve seen a small but definite shift towards the depiction of diversity through positive roles and representations – we’ll share some examples of this later – which we believe is the next stepping stone in the evolution of diversity in advertising.

Taboo No

Some of what we saw in 2016 would have once been deemed truly shocking. In 1974, TV’s first ever (post-watershed) lesbian kiss was broadcast (Girl, BBC2) only after the station controller made an on-air announcement. It was deemed so controversial it was aired only once. And just a short 23 years ago, Brookside repeated that pre-watershed to both huge support and complaint.

So to 2016 and we have seen a much broader representation of sexual identities through and Trivago advertising campaigns. Whilst that was happening, Channel 4’s First Dates has been effectively normalising LGBT and disability dating. It feels like we’ve made huge leaps forward of late, but there is still so much more to do.

Even within the fashion industry – a historical flashpoint for diversity – we’ve seen enlightened brands make headway. The style and fashion platform Refinery 29 going as far as creating a whole new portfolio of stock imagery featuring plus size women – currently shown in only 2% of advertising images despite making up 67% of American women. The platform believes that enabling access to these kinds of images will encourage advertisers to more accurately mirror the society they are trying to engage.

A Super-Human Effort

The Paralympics advertising, as always, fuelled the debate about representation in advertising. Channel 4’s ‘We’re the Super Humans’ TVC gained praise for striking the balance between depicting its stars’ epic sporting endeavours and everyday activities. Its very existence also helped to highlight the dramatic under representation of disabled people in advertising. Scarily, it featured more disabled people in a single commercial than had ever appeared accumulatively in advertising before.

The Lighter Side of Diversity

The Maltesers ads, which won £1 million of free advertising from Channel 4 as part of a competition to encourage brands to champion diversity and disability, although highly praised, did raise some interesting debates and discussion points.

The three ads demonstrating a ‘lighter side’ of disability, were rather risqué in so much as they each featured disabled actors explaining to friends an awkward situation that had occurred to them. Whilst being enjoyed and applauded by the broader public for their inclusivity and sense of humour, some questioned the underlying sense they were conveying. In every scenario the protagonist’s disability is the crux of the joke. This has had an adverse effect on a small set of members within the disabled community, uncomfortable with the fact their disability was central to the gag. Is this indicative of yet more insensitive depictions of diversity in advertising, or is it a case of whatever you do, you’ll always end up upsetting a certain minority?

Real Women Doing Real Things

H&M should also be recognised and celebrated for its Autumn/Winter TVC which featured as wide a ranging cast of strong female characters as you could hope for. In short, it featured a black woman with natural hair, women with shaved heads, a muscular woman, wobbly bits wobbling, a thin woman eating French fries without any sense of guilt, armpit hair, a septuagenarian, an ethnically ambiguous, high-powered female business executive, a transgender woman, lesbians and so on. The types of women you might encounter on the tube or high street.

And the reason this was so arresting? Because we are so unused to seeing real femininity in advertising, as opposed to the femininity we are told to believe is real – white, perfect figure, perfect hair and make-up. So for now reality is the new fiction in advertising, but in time we hope that reality will be just that.

Roles, Depiction and Stereotypes

Unilever has also independently recognised the very real need for change in this space too, and has committed to remove sexist stereotypes from all of its brands’ advertising. This being driven by the shocking findings of its own survey, where it discovered that just 2% of ads depict intelligent women, 3% show women in managerial, leadership or professional roles, and 40% of women don’t identify with the characters they see on screen or in print.

And further analysis demonstrated that significant gains in impact, likeability and preference could be achieved by rectifying some of these failures. So look out for more positive, intelligent, professional depictions of women coming out of the Unilever stable moving forwards.

Come One, Come All, It's Christmas Time

And taking a snapshot of the biggest advertising peak of the year – the Christmas ads – we see yet more reassuring movement. Sainsbury’s stop gap epic features a wide range of characters – intended to represent the diverse nature of modern Britain – including a same sex couple complete with baby. House of Fraser, although revisiting last year’s ‘music and street dance’ theme, has decided to better reflect its customer base with older (yet still as funky) characters central to the story. M&S turn their focus to Mrs Clause, a mature lady delivering a wonderfully caring gesture whilst keeping Mr Clause in the dark. And finally, John Lewis – to some THE Christmas ad of the year – featured the infamous Buster the dog and an all-black cast, representing the typical British family, which has been warmly received by all.

To 2017, and Beyond

Whilst these pieces of work have all done a brilliant job at featuring a diverse range of ages, ethnicities, abilities, sexual orientations, and in doing so normalised a much wider range of talented people who help sell things to us, we believe there is still work to be done. We theorise that the next shift in diversity in advertising will be a move towards ads that truly represent the behaviours and passions of the group they feature, and not just the generalised stereotypes of the past and to a certain extent present.

Furthermore, if we recognise that the peaks of engagement created by the Paralympics in 2012 and 2016 drove a real reframing of disability in the eyes of the general public, really turbo-charging the breaking down of taboos around this area, then what could those peaks be for gender, age, LGBT and BAME equality? Who will step forward and force us to rethink our attitudes in these spaces?

So if we could urge our brand owning and marketing colleagues to take away one thing, it would be to consider what peaks they can create and which area of diversity they can help break down the barriers to. Gender, disability age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation – there’s a long list to choose from.

But beware, just doing it simply isn’t enough. There are a plethora of examples of bad advertising trying to do good things in this space. In short, it’s hard to make good advertising, let alone good advertising that does good too. So whichever area of focus you choose, whatever business challenges you need to address, work with your agencies and make sure you get to bloody great work. Because otherwise it’ll fade into the background of brand noise, pass unnoticed and fail twice – once for your brand, and once for the cause of diversity.