MM Awards

Viewpoint: Advertising So White

Alex Spencer

This week has seen the first diversity report from Uber, following a period for the company that could politely described as ‘controversial’. The results are completely unsurprising. 63.9 per cent of employees are male – a figure that jumps to 84.6 per cent among tech staff – and 49.8 per cent are white, compared to the 8.8 per cent who are black.

This problem isn’t unique to Uber, though, or even to the tech industry. Last week’s Ad Week event in London dedicated a couple of panels to the diversity problems in marketing.

On one of them, Oystercatcher managing partner Richard Robinson shared a few disheartening stats: only 12 per cent of executive creative directors are women, despite the fact that over 80 per cent of consumer purchase decisions are made by females. Meanwhile, just two per cent of Campaign’s A-List of the most powerful people in advertising and media were from BAME (Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic) backgrounds – a number that has actually dropped since its peak in 2014, when it reached a lofty four per cent.

Improved gender and racial diversity behind the scenes is an important end unto itself. But the lack of it in the marketing industry specifically can lead to another problem, namely ads that don’t adequately represent those groups.

Research conducted by Lloyds Banking Group last year found that only 0.06 per cent of people appearing in UK ads are LGBTQ, in contrast to the 1.7 per cent of the population that identify as something other than cis and heterosexual. The gap is even wider for people with disabilities, who make up 17.9 per cent of the UK population but just 0.06 per cent of people in ads.

A Shutterstock study also from last year suggested that things were improving. 49 per cent of marketers said they had selected photography of non-white people for campaigns, and 32 per cent had chosen same-sex couples. 34 per cent said they were actually using less imagery of Caucasian models than in the past – and 33 per cent for heterosexual couples.

At first glance, these reports simply don’t line up. But the Shutterstock figures don’t necessarily tell the whole story. That 49 per cent of marketers who picked non-white models might have only done it once in hundreds of images. And when you actually think about it, a third of marketers making progress from a non-specified past isn’t too impressive.

The chances are, if you’ve made it this far, I don’t need to convince you of the importance of representation, at least ethically speaking. But let’s look at the practical argument for better diversity in ads.

“We know that if people see advertising that doesn’t reflect the world they’re in, then they don’t respond well to the product, and they’re less likely to buy it,” said Nadya Powell, MD of creative agency Sunshine and founder of last year’s ‘ChristmasSOWhite’ initiative. “It’s just good business sense that you need your advertising to reach the groups that could potentially buy your products.”

“It’s about reflecting the audience that you’re talking to,” agreed Simone Moessinger, creative director at 72andSunny. “Therein lies diversity, because consumers are diverse.”

The potential trap here, however, is that digital advertising enables us to segment audiences down and show them completely different messages. This could be used to create demographic ghettoes, but it’s vital that targeting isn’t used to present people with only faces that look like theirs.

While the most important thing about diversity is giving underrepresented people a chance to see themselves reflected in media, it’s also a chance to remind overrepresented groups about the breadth of the society that they live in. A lack of visibility can lead to ‘othering’ of groups outside our own experience, and that in turn can lead to… well, I’ll leave you to look at recent elections and referenda and draw your own conclusions.

Finally, if and when advertising does improve its diversity, it’s important that it is done right. This is the challenge that currently faces women. The problem is not so much that female faces are absent from ads but the way they are being represented – most obviously, a tendency to sexualise the female body – and the kinds of products that they are used to advertise, which can lean on gender stereotypes, especially towards domestic life.

This is a point that was raised by Twitter user Absurdistwords earlier this month, in a blistering series of tweets on the historical representation of black people in advertising.

Representation in media is a complex issue. There are a number of pitfalls that advertisers can fall into, which might be one of the reasons they're dragging their feet . But these pitfalls were mostly created, and are mostly perpetuated, by a lack of diversity in the first place. It's easy to bump up against an ugly stereotype – even one you might have had no idea existed – when there's only one person representing an entire group.

The only solution is establishing a wider variety of faces, and bodies, and identities, so that those single examples don't have to stand out on their own – whether we're talking representation in ads, or in the meeting rooms of the companies that make them.