As marketers increasingly move to recognise the innate diversity within consumer demographics, it is crucial for brands to accurately represent this diversity in their communication and within their internal structures.
This can be easier said than done in certain markets. In Southeast Asia, for example, political and religious factors, for example, might limit the acceptance of sexual orientations beyond heterosexuality, hindering inclusivity efforts.
Yet perhaps just as troubling for the industry might be a lack of coordinated effort at all.
At a roundtable and panel session at Meta Singapore with Meta's chief diversity officer Maxine Williams organised by Interactive Advertising Bureau Southeast Asia and India (IAB SEA + India), the IAB unveiled its new regional research report, 'Representation in Advertising in Asia'.
The report highlights another report from WFA that found 60% of agencies in SEA have no formal process to ensure diversity and inclusion in the advertisements they create. Only 40% of agencies had received a brief from a brand that specified diversity, and 40% said there was no change in representation in the ads they created over the previous 12 months.
Creating campaigns to reflect diverse consumer bases accurately
According to the study, there is a significant lack of representation of various ethnicities, ages, genders, disabilities, religions, sexual orientations, and body types in advertising across Asia. The responsibility of promoting inclusion in advertising falls on brands, as per most respondents.
Miranda Dimopoulos, the regional chief executive for IAB SEA+India, says brands can do all the great advertising messaging they want, but the products must also be representative. She remarks that as a plus-sized woman living in Asia, she finds shopping hard in this region.
"I have no kids. So if anyone should be able to shop, it is probably me. And so I think that it goes beyond just representation. But the brand is also responsible for providing options for that wide range," Dimopoulos tells Campaign Asia-Pacific.
Williams agreed, noting that the opportunity to be more inclusive is in everybody's interest, including agencies which could attract more brands to use their services.
"I speak a lot about body type and hair type (like my curly hair) because products that work for curly hair, not just curly hair, but very curly hair and African hair in mainstream markets have been very few. Brands have understood the opportunity because most of the world because there are a lot of people in the world with curly hair," Williams tells Campaign Asia-Pacific.
"If you are not making any products or appealing to them with your products, you are just leaving billions of people out, as there is no opportunity for them. We have seen more and more brands making products that work, but they are not advertising and appealing to people with curly hair. Brands that have started to do that more have started to get more market share and become more profitable."
Williams added: "Whether it is your standard product that could appeal to everyone, or you just haven't made an effort, and whether it's the advertiser, the agency pushing it, or the client pushing it, it doesn't matter. If you want more market share, you need somebody in that ecosystem to understand and take deliberate steps to be more inclusive."
The only way for brands to close the representation gap, Williams said, is to have more people represented.
She explained that brands also need to measure ad performance with increased representation to provide the solid evidence and bottom-line results that will ultimately make representation in ads a no-brainer.
Brands must first understand that this will be better for them, says Williams, noting that chief diversity officers like herself train brands to help them know who the consumer is, what the consumer wants, and how brands can better represent them.
"Advertisers must ask themselves: Why would you leave opportunity on the table? If you know that 25% of the world's population comprises people with disabilities, why would you not want 25% more market share? Similarly, whether it is body type, skin tone, or gender, it is not just about the products but also how you appeal to people," said Williams.
"Whether you are selling books or other products, do you understand the diversity of your audience? To sell more, you need to appeal to them in a way that resonates with them."
Williams explains when advertisers connect with consumers through representation familiar to them, they earn more of a connection and presence in their lives.
Changing gender stereotypes in advertising
The study found that women feel up to 20% less represented than men across all countries surveyed, with the most significant gaps in Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia.
The study also found that significantly fewer women than men feel represented in advertising across the four main religions.
Williams acknowledged changing gender stereotypes in advertising can be difficult. However, she said it boils down to whether brands comprehend the audience they are targeting and serving.
Depicting more women in business roles, for example, might buck the trend in certain markets, but could nonetheless benefit brands even if portraying such women is more rarely done.
"These are questions you need to ask yourself. It would be naive to believe that companies will become more diverse and inclusive merely for the sake of it. Instead, you must focus on your consumer base," says Williams.
"The advertising industry has traditionally targeted people's aspirations, which could be either beneficial or detrimental, depending on your perspective. Thus, even if women in business roles are not a norm in a particular culture, it could be an aspiration that women hold. Therefore, if you focus more on that, it could benefit your business. These are all points to consider."
Dimopoulos shares that during the creative process at the IAB, the industry body used to discuss who had the final decision - the author or the editor.
She explains bringing in diverse creative teams to create influential and representative work is essential. Still, if an editor comes in above them and asks to make the logo bigger or questions the need to show three different ethnicities, it can undermine the representation efforts.
"If we want to insist on representation, we must also empower the people giving us representation. We can't create something if an editor comes in and tells us it's wrong or too far or if we might offend someone," says Dimopoulos.
"Working in this region for a decade has taught me that we're always going to upset someone, and it comes down to who we're serving and creating more significant equity. So I don't care if we get slammed on social media for a few days. The people we're helping and creating a better world for are who I care about. So that's the outcome we are focused on."