Matthew Keegan
Feb 9, 2023

Why social class is advertising’s biggest diversity blind spot

You’ll find precious few mentions of class and social mobility in the equality and inclusion policies of any leading profession, including advertising. But how much longer can adland continue to ignore class? And at what cost?

Why social class is advertising’s biggest diversity blind spot

Social class might bring up antiquated ideas of British snobbery, but it exists everywhere. In Asia, social class is very pronounced. From obscenely wealthy ‘Crazy Rich Asian’ types, to a much reported on 'rising middle class', and a majority who are working class or live in poverty. The pandemic certainly brought class differences in Asia into sharp focus.

Yet, despite making up the majority in society, advertising often fails to represent working class people. And when adverts do feature working class people, they usually perpetuate class-based stereotypes.

Instead, the advertising industry is obsessed with targeting middle-class 18 to 34-year-olds, resulting in advertisements that seem to overlook the genuine diversity of society and instead mirror adland's own demographic.

"This always bothered me," says Callum Fitzhardinge, creative director, Media.Monks Singapore. "In most advertising briefs I’ve seen in my career, the target audience was the 18-34 year old AB demographic, or a variation. This group is not the only people who buy things!"

"Often this is because that demographic is viewed as aspirational," adds Fitzhardinge. "These days, however, aspiration is becoming less prevalent. Authenticity is overtaking."

But Fitzhardinge admits that even authenticity can be dysfunctional.

"When creatives are selling a story they typically mine their own experience for authenticity. Unfortunately, if that experience is limited to the middle class, as is often the case in the advertising community, a conscious effort needs to be made to present stories from a different point of view."

The aspiration obsession

Dan*, a marketing leader with 25-years-experience in the industry who prefers to remain anonymous, has worked with brands in Southeast Asia who, despite having the bulk of their customers in social class C and D, will persist in defining their target audience as AB and portraying AB lifestyles in their ads because they believe that aspiration is critical. 

"But this is not because social class isn’t acknowledged in the marketing community," he says. "It is acknowledged and discussed very overtly, but marketers tend to believe that working class people want to buy ‘premium’ products so they consciously decide not to portray working class people or lifestyles."

One example given is for Tiger Beer in Singapore, which was for many years a mass product drunk by the bulk of ordinary people, but continually tried to represent itself as being ‘award winning’ and ‘premium’ in a way that equivalent Western brands like Coors, Bud Light or Carling would not do.

"Marketing and advertising in Asia skews towards the 'aspirational' and 'upwardly mobile', often ignoring the working class," says Lesley John, managing director, Virtue APAC.

John says this is unsurprising for a region experiencing rapid economic growth and where the current generation strives to (and tends to) be better-off than the previous generation in terms of quality of living, economic status, and opportunity.

"Set against such a cultural context, marketers use advertising to reflect the hopes, dreams, desires and aspirations of their audiences to build brand desire and audience affinity," says John. "Every product purchase is a step towards 'upgrading' or 'premiumising' their lives."

"Tiger Beer for many years a mass product drunk by the bulk of ordinary people, but continually tried to represent itself as being ‘award winning’ and ‘premium’". Images: Shutterstock

Are consumer attitudes changing?

Marketers are not necessarily wrong to believe that Asian audiences are status-oriented. There is a lot of historical research that indicates this to be the case (The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett is a much-referenced text on this).  

But Dan believes that consumer attitudes are changing in Asia, and that the belief that all Asian audiences are status-obsessed may not be as true as it used to be. 

"If working class people believe that they can achieve a higher standard of living through hard work and prudence, then aspirational brands will continue to do well," says Dan. "But if they believe the deck is stacked against them and that elites are a separate class that they can never belong to, then brands that are proudly working class could also succeed."

And there is growing evidence that this view is gaining ground in Asia (as it is in the West). 

Recently we've seen campaigns from brands like Jollibee and their JolliSavers campaign from 2021 that promoted its range of bestsellers that solve your cravings without hurting your wallet. However, campaigns that specifically target or portray working class people are still few and far between.

"Asian marketers' obsession with aspiration does often blind them to the opportunity to create proudly working class brands," says Dan. "A relentless focus on making all characters in ads be aspirational or admirable makes it very hard to create three dimensional and interesting characters and stories. But when brands like Jollibee manage to tell these more relatable stories the effects can be very large."  

Advertising is certainly an elitist industry

For all the talk around diversity in recent years, social class is something of a blind spot.

In his whitepaper The Aspiration Window’ (2021), Ian Murray, co-founder of research  and strategy collective House51, found that advertising is certainly an elitist industry.

"In our research we found that 70% of marketers grew up in a household where the chief income earner was social grade AB," says Murray. The equivalent figure for the general population is 29%. So, there is a big problem."

And, of course, this speaks to a direct link between the lack of diversity in the advertising industry and the work that it produces.

"All our research points to a fundamental psychological and cultural disconnect between people working in advertising and working-class audiences," says Murray. "Middle class marketers and advertisers simply experience and see the world differently from working class people."

Among other things, Murray highlights in his work that people working in advertising tend to be highly individualistic and materialistic in their values. This contrasts with the more ‘holistic’ thinking style of the mainstream and working-class people - i.e. seeing the world as relational, connected, and community orientated.

"The lack of social mobility and access to our profession consolidates the privileged outlook of marketing and advertising," says Murray. "Furthermore, many people who work in advertising don’t have working class colleagues or friends. This means there are fewer ‘real life’ opportunities to burst the industry bubble. And as the famous David Ogilvy quote goes much of the research that the industry does seems to work to support prevailing industry worldviews rather than illuminating alternative perspectives."

So, in this context, it’s perhaps not surprising that the industry fails to portray or represent working class people satisfactorily in ads.

Breaking the class ceiling

Class inequality is real and just as pressing as other types of disadvantage. Yet is almost entirely absent from the diversity discourse and policy in leading professions, including advertising, journalism, film and TV and market research. 

In their book, ‘The Class Ceiling’, authors Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison find that meritocracy and social mobility are a myth in all leading professions and inequality of opportunity based on class is just as pervasive and profound as others forms of discrimination.

But while there have been big strides made for other forms of diversity, such as race and gender, why is class consistently the elephant in the room?

Dan believes the need to address class diversity is utterly critical. For the basic reason that wealthy, educated audiences the world over are much more similar to one another than working class audiences are. 

"Rich people with degrees from Manila to Munich dress similarly, hold similar views and watch the same shows on Netflix and follow the same accounts on Instagram," says Dan. "It's the ordinary people who show the greatest diversity and most dramatic cultural differences."

But Dan admits that class diversity is much harder to address than gender diversity or sexual preference because there is an educational dimension.

"Unless agencies invest in helping working class people enter the industry they won't be able to change the status quo."

However, research shows that improving workplace diversity alone will not be sufficient to solve the representation issue.

The academic evidence (The Class Ceiling by Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison) shows that socially mobile entrants into ‘elite’ professions face tremendous pressure to conform to institutional worldviews even if these contradict their own values and lived experiences. The belief persists that you 'get on in your career' by assimilating the accepted view of ‘how things work’. (E.g focussing on the industry default 18-34 ABC1 target.)

"The problem with focusing exclusively on improved diversity as the solution to lack of representation in advertising is that, essentially, it puts the responsibility for righting the wrongs in our industry on the very people that have been excluded and marginalised for so long!" Says Murray.

Research by McLeod et al (2009) and Whiteside et al (2021) found some creatives modify their creative work (and behaviour) to suit the prevailing tastes of creative departments—typically white, middle-class men. Therefore any original thinking that derived from lived experiences of lower-class, or even upper-class creatives, was potentially being missed.

"Looking at that from an inclusion perspective, the industry needs to ensure people from different social classes feel comfortable being themselves at work," says Fitzhardinge. "We also need to prioritise class alongside the many other diversity and inclusion metrics that exist (beyond gender and age). I look forward to the day our industry evolves enough to address all those components of DEI equally!"

A question of economics?

There’s also a simple economic reason which is a major prohibitory reason why many working class people can't break into the industry.

"The cost of working in big cities, where the vast majority of the industry is concentrated, is prohibitively high," says Michael Lee, Partnership CSO at VCCP. "If you were working class, and had creative talent, but didn’t already live in those cities, your ability to even know this industry exists let alone be able to afford to move there was almost non-existent. Hopefully that is starting to change, and we as an industry will start going to the talent that is undoubtedly out there, instead."

Nomfundo Msomi, head of strategy at WhiteGrey Melbourne believes that class is not acknowledged or factored in enough.

"When you ignore class, you ignore true inclusion," says Msomi. "Class can determine the sorts of internships candidates have access to and how much time they can dedicate to gaining work experience, which then impacts how and when they get their foot through the door."

And Lesley John, managing director of Virtue APAC, says marketing can be a self-selecting bubble that – despite the critical roles diversity, difference and conflict play in enabling creativity – constantly brings people with similar backgrounds, interests and values into the fold as a result of unconscious bias. 

"To create advertising that is truly reflective of the real world, perhaps a starting point is in embracing different worldviews, taking an interest in individuals who have taken non-linear paths, or simply looking in unexpected places – beneath the surface, around the corners, for talent or creative insight."

In conclusion, Murray says, the harsh truth is that the empathy gap and class stereotyping is down to the people who already work in the industry and a lack of critical thinking about our values, assumptions and biases.

"We simply need to be better," says Murray. "We need to create a culture where heterodox thinking is more valued and everyone can be more confident about challenging the canon."

Campaign Asia

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