Advertising and Diversity

To speak to your audience authentically, you need authentic perspectives both behind the scenes and in your advertisements.

Matt Damon recently got into hot water when he failed to appropriately address the need for racial diversity both onscreen and off during an episode of his television series, “Project Greenlight.” It’s just the latest in a long list of highly visible missteps by the film and television industry as it continues to exclude people of color. And it can be incredibly damaging to people’s reputations — even if your brand is as strong as Matt Damon’s.

But diversity isn’t only a problem that Hollywood needs to tackle. Advertising is another field where diverse casting in the making of ads can send a strong message to society at large. As Matt Damon learned, it’s also important to include diverse voices when the ad is being created, to ensure a real and representative voice. Diversifying your teams, consultants, and test groups is key. And the failure to do so can be potentially brand-damaging.

Why hasn’t the advertising industry taken greater strides, when the country is calling for change? As University of Illinois professor Jason Chambers, author of “Madison Avenue and the Color Line,” has stated, it’s probably because marketers are used to showing people the way the world is and who we are — not necessarily showing people where we should be going. To do so may be too big a gamble for too many brands that have too much to lose. But it’s a dying line of thought, and you won’t want your business to be the last one worrying about whether it’s “safe” to show an accurate representation of American life.

Diversity in Advertising: What to Avoid

Although the first step is simple and obvious — that you should be showing balanced diversity in your ads — one mistake to avoid is being too showy about it. Today’s savvy audiences don’t want to feel pandered to with on-the-nose diversity ads.

For example, Coca-Cola straddles the line with some of its commercials over the past year that distinctly focus on diversity (including a new Coke ad where a mixed audience fills a cinema and the tagline reads: “We’re all the same when the lights go down,” which could have been more powerful if it hadn’t been quite as heavy-handed). Another example is Chevy’s “The New Us” ad, which premiered last summer during the Sochi Olympics, featuring ethnically diverse and same-sex couples. These beautiful commercials can be undermined by gratuitous emphasis on their diversity, instead of simply letting it speak for itself.

Of course, another reason audiences might be skeptical of ham-fisted diversity commercials is because a brand might look like it’s seeking controversy and the accompanying press coverage (like Cheerios inadvertently garnered with its mixed-race family ad in 2014). Diversity can be polarizing, but it can also be good business. No one wants to help a corporation congratulate itself for doing the bare minimum: the right thing in the real world.

But, of course, the worst mistake is failing to do anything diverse at all.

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