Forbes' Addressing The Ad Industry's Sticky Problem With Race

Last month at Cannes Lions, the largest global gathering of advertisers and creatives, diversity and inclusion was one of the hottest topics. Every panel, every ad agency and every company seemed to have a position on it. It is indeed time—the ad industry has a poor track record in diversity. For example, women occupy only 12% of creative directors, often the most highly paid roles in an agency. Beyond gender, the ad industry is doing even worse on racial diversity–look at who spoke at Cannes Lions and the racial dynamics will be apparent.

Dr. Edward Ademolu, an expert in racial diversity in communications, highlights some advert controversies in relation to race: “Think of H&M’s ‘Coolest Monkey’ ad featuring a black child; Dolce & Gabbana’s ‘Chopsticks Racism Row’; Heineken's “Sometimes, lighter is better” advertisement and of course, Pepsi’s renouncement of its Kendall Jenner-fronted ad campaign which was accused of co-opting the imagery of protest movements to sell soda.” Dr. Ademolu adds that after social media outcries, "brands have humbly—or reluctantly—ridden this wave of condemnation, retreated to the drawing board and adjusted their advertising accordingly, often preceded by PR-advised apologies of ‘lessons learned.’”

 

Despite all these incidents, brands seem to be applying plasters to the ad industry’s systemic issue with race. A recent report from Adobe sheds light on why the ad industry’s problem with race is so sticky and entrenched–and how we can begin to address it.

More than 1,000 adults were surveyed in the U.S., and only 26% of African-Americans, 10% of Hispanics and 3% of Asians feel represented in advertising, compared to 59% of whites. Addressing the racial/ethnicity representation gaps, however, can be challenging as diverse customer groups are more likely than the average to opt-out of sharing data with brands they have purchased from. But according to Adobe, brands should continue to consider ways to effectively target diverse groups, to these groups’ benefits.

Toccara Baker, senior product marketing manager, EMEA at Adobe says: “Despite African-American populations being least likely to share personal data, they are also the population group that would be most willing be willing to share more data if given a reason to do so. Brands have an opportunity to secure more data to deliver personalized experiences if they give diverse populations a reason to do so by being trustworthy and transparent.”

At a panel at Cannes Lions hosted by Adobe, ethnicity-based targeting was discussed at length. “Brands do not want to ask for personal details such as race as they fear of overstepping the mark. However, without this, the default will go back to white, straight, male. The conversation we should be having is how can brands target effectively to build trust and transparency,” says Baker.

Another reason why the ad industry’s sticky problem with race, and diversity more generally, is simply the entrenched status quo. Cindy Gallop, an ad industry veteran and a vocal critic of the industry’s lack of diversity, summarised in an interview with the Guardian: “Those white guys are sitting pretty. Enormous salaries, bonuses, stock options, expenses… Why would they rock the boat?” The Adobe report found compelling statistics that may get the white male executives turn their heads. 38% of U.S. consumers, and 26% U.K. consumers, said that they are more likely to trust a brand that shows more diversity in its ads, and 40% of females are more likely to trust a brand with more diversity in their ads.

Diversity in ads, however, must be done intentionally to build trust with consumers. #BiasCorrect by Burns Group is an example of an ad agency thinking critically about diversity of ads. “We engaged 60 female leaders to launch a bias-correcting plug-in for Slack and generate an honest conversation about unconscious gender bias, based on the leading research from our client partner, Catalyst,” says Jo McKinney, CEO of Burns Group. “We were focusing on gender-biased language–language that tends to have positive connotations for male leaders, and negative for females.”

 

Within this gender dimension, they also thought about intersectionality. “Early on in the creative process we had an important conversation about race with our client team. We found that female leaders of color had specific bias language—for instance, “aggressive” or “quiet”—and we discussed whether we should actively counteract these racial stereotypes, or feature them. We decided to use them as shining an honest light on bias was more important in this instance. Having these conversations on race/ethnicity at the beginning of a creative process is critical,” says McKinney.

There are concrete examples and emerging insights to help the ad industry overcome its systemic struggles with race, and diversity more broadly. The ad industry may not be 100% ready, but consumers–with their increasing diversity–are demanding it.

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