In the last five years, on the back of the Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movement, CMOs of countless brands made pledges and commitments to increase representation and fight the slowly-seeping-yet-rampant unconscious bias that has come to permeate our ads.
Collectively, our intent as an industry to create representative and progressive ads reached its peak in the last few years, buoyed by a growing economy with no seeming end in sight.
However, the gap between our intent and our actions remains shockingly large. Based on a recent analysis of over 3,500 US ads, we continue to struggle to break common tropes, such as disproportionately casting people with lighter skin tones, as well as males, in roles that emphasize professional or leadership contexts.
Change takes time, and unfortunately it will not come about one ad at a time. We need systematic ways to understand where we — both as an industry and for each of the brands we lead — are starting from, so we can build a roadmap to get us to where we want to go.
Historically, even this felt insurmountable: ask any marketing leader what percent of their ads are representative, progressive or show a certain group in a certain situation (i.e. women in domestic settings), and you’ll be met with statements of positive intent at best and a twinge of fear and deflection at worst. You’re unlikely to hear any data or get a measurable answer.
Historically, getting this answer was impossible: the combination of raging content proliferation mixed with a lack of technical ability to measure gender, skin tone, age or environment in ads at scale left us with poor choices. Either we sampled a small set of ads and drew large inferences, or we guessed.
But technology has come a long way, and creative data now gives us the means to answer that question, at scale. So how come we’re not doing anything about it?
Research hasn’t convinced marketers that representative ads are good for society and business
Studies continue to show that more representation in ads is not only good for society, but it’s good for business. According to a Deloitte study, brands with more representative ads saw a 44% average stock increase over two years and 69% better business performance. People of color are more likely to trust and buy into brands that show more diversity in their ads, as are a majority of younger consumers of all races and skin tones.
In fact, I have yet to see a study that fails to demonstrate a positive link between more representative ads and better performance, either at the business level (stock price), brand level (brand perception) or ad level (better view-through, conversion, etc).
So why hasn’t this research galvanized action? For many, it’s too far removed from their brand, their audience and their specific marketing challenges. Marketers want to see the impact of making this shift on their brand and their business performance.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see something with your own eyes. But given the vast level of aggregated research, how can we, as an industry, expedite this process to arrive at the place that most of us want to get to?
Creative data is the measurement framework for change
By stripping content down to its core elements, creative data can help us understand, at scale and objectively, the casting and storytelling decisions we’re making. This helps marketers demystify how representative their casting really is, breaking down their creative content by age, gender and skin tone, as well as various situational settings, such as domesticity, leadership and physical activity. Marketers can then adapt their creative strategies, knowing that objective data will help steer the path to more progressive advertising — and, in turn, achieve long-term business growth.
This can aid us both check our bias and determine where each brand we market stands today and how much progress we need to make. It’s a compass in a storm.
Data holds the key to establishing an objective baseline for representation, with real measurable opportunities to understand how to move forward. With creative data now interoperable with media mix modeling studies, each brand can, for themselves, determine the impact that representative advertising will have on their business.
Once they see this for themselves, I predict industry-level change will be swift.
Anastasia Leng is CEO and founder, CreativeX