Matthew Keegan
Apr 16, 2020

It's 2020, so why are some groups still being shut out of ads?

Marketers say more diverse leadership teams are needed to confront bias in the industry and produce creative work that is more reflective of modern society.

It's 2020, so why are some groups still being shut out of ads?

When did you last see a disabled person, elderly person, or single parent in an ad? While brands are slowly opening up to involving these and other marginalised groups, they still remain all too often shut out of adverts and media in general, even now in 2020.

In fact, people over 50 are marketing’s biggest missed opportunity accounting for 70% of disposable income, but you'd never guess that by watching ads. Similarly, disabled people – another huge consumer group and the world’s largest minority group – with a global spending power of $1.2 trillion, are seldom represented in ads. But why?

Recently, moderators of Chinese social media app TikTok were told to suppress videos from users who appeared too ugly, poor or disabled, as part of the company’s efforts to curate an “aspirational air” in the videos it promotes, according to documents published by The Intercept.

Sadly, this typifies the often ugly nature of bias and even discrimination that evidently still plays a role in shaping who or what gets represented in media content. But as an industry that has the power to influence and shape culture, why, in 2020, are certain groups still being ignored or even filtered out?

"I think many marketers are yet to fully grasp the economic opportunity of speaking to under-represented groups, putting their brands and society at risk," says Aline Santos, Unilever's EVP global marketing and chief diversity & inclusion officer.

Santos says the industry used to talk about the ‘general market’ but fast forward to now, and there is no longer a clear majority consumer. "This presents marketers with an extraordinary opportunity to evolve how we engage, impact and represent people with our brands."

Ali Hanan, founder of Creative Equals, believes that systemic bias is one of the strongest issues that comes into play when decisions are made about who gets cast in ads and who doesn't.

Leadership's role

Hanan says that changes first need to occur in making leadership teams more diverse before we start to see creative work that's more reflective of modern society. If you don't have diverse voices at the table, then you're definitely going to get a very homogenous set of adverts coming up, she says.

"With every creative brief it’s about getting inclusion written into it," says Hanan. "We’ve got such a homogenous group at the table, for now, we have to make them think about these under-represented groups. Because of their blind spots and biases, they don’t think or see all these different groups they’re not including in their adverts because often they’re creating the adverts for people like themselves, or groups that they attach their stereotypes to."

Hanan adds that diversity and inclusion has to be the thread that goes throughout every single process. "It can’t just be some vision and mission statement that just sits on the website or is held by HR. It has to be embedded throughout every practice and process you’ve got."

It's no secret that the industry has, for too long, had a complete obsession with youth, with beauty, with good looking, able-bodied people, but this is one of the reasons why we get whole margins of society – huge consumer groups – still, in 2020, feeling completely disenfranchised from society.

The disability deficit

For example, if you’re a wheelchair user, how often do you ever get to see yourself represented in an advert, on a screen, or anywhere? – And of course it means that people end up treating those groups differently because they’re not seen to be part of normal society.

But change is slowly occurring. In recent years there has been lots of push for real, everyday people to be seen in ads and, with that, some quite interesting campaigns coming up. Notably, campaigns like Ikea's 'ThisAbles'. The Swedish flatpack giant developed a range of add-ons that people with disabilities can attach to their existing Ikea furniture to make it work better for them. The campaign, created out of McCann Tel Aviv and produced by Craft London, features a film promoting the goods.

Data insights company Kantar has found ads that are more progressive are 25% more likely to be effective in terms of their ability to engage and to drive meaningfully different brand associations, which are the foundation of long-term brand equity. Conversely, the least progressive ads are twice as likely to achieve the lowest effectiveness scores.

Daren Poole, global head of creative, insights division at Kantar says that brands need to be bold and put aside pre-conceived ideas about who the brand's target is and what resonates with them. 

"There are still some assumptions about target audiences which means that we see young, straight, able-bodied people in ads," says Poole. "Not only are these assumptions wrong, it misses an opportunity to demonstrate progressiveness by featuring those that are often excluded."

And certainly when it comes to diversity discussions, there have been some groups who are more excluded than others. Disabled people, despite being the world's largest minority group, still somehow manage to be the most under-represented.

"Progress for people with disabilities has been far slower," says Santos. "One of the reasons is that for too long the industry has looked at diversity through the single lens of gender but we need to consider factors beyond gender such as race, class, education, age, ability and sexuality in order to be truly representative of society."

Unilever has been measuring its advertising for harmful stereotypes since 2016 and the data shows that progressive ads – free from stereotypes – create 37% more branded impact and improve purchase intent by 28%. So there is not just a moral case for better representation but a financial one too.

But it takes strong leadership and long-term commitment to make the change. To that end, Unilever has recently set the target to become the number one employer of choice for people with a disability by 2025.

"This requires a wholesale shift in how we operate, design our offices and our products, recruit our teams and so on," says Santos. "Diversity cannot live in advertising alone; we need business to consider every touch point if they want to become truly inclusive."

Opening company doors

While this is encouraging, Hanan of Creative Equals believes there is still a long way to go for companies to understand the depth and breadth of what it means to have diversity and inclusion be the thread that goes through everything; all practices and processes.

"One of the challenges with our sector is that there’s this perception that you have to be part of advertising – i.e. trendy, cool, young, or whatever it is that we’ve got as our stereotypical ‘creative director’ type," says Hanan. "So if you can’t even get to the table how are you ever going to be at the table and have a voice?"

She adds that companies need to think about their recruitment process and how they are opening them up to different communities and not just hiring through their staff incentivised bonus schemes, because that means you’re just going to get more people who look and sound like the people who are already there.

"Make sure that you are hiring through disability networks, or LGBTQIA networks, or considering people who aren’t from the classical trained route, who would bring in a completely different point of view," says Hanan. "Open the doors up to get those types of people in so that they can be at the table, influence the creative output, and equip them for success."

Della Mathew, executive creative director for Ogilvy, agrees. "We need to embrace more talent from non-traditional backgrounds and that takes intent, it isn't going to happen on its own."

Putting the right people in the room with a diversity of experience to authentically bring this diversity to the creative work is what is needed.

"Hire diversely," says Mathew. "Take risks on non-conventional talent. Push brands early in the conversations with ideas that show the breadth of lifestyles. Creative Directors need to push their strategists and teams to bring insights around non-commercial ideas or ways in."

Ultimately, says Hanan, when we start designing for the different facets of society we start designing for everybody and that can only mean that as a sector we become more powerful and influential.

Campaign Asia

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