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Opinion: The power of diversity and inclusion in advertising representation

In the world of advertising, the call for diversity and inclusion has transcended from a mere trend to a powerful movement that is reshaping the industry’s landscape. Recognizing the importance of reflecting society’s rich tapestry in advertising, brands are now embracing diversity and inclusion as not just ethical imperatives but as drivers of success. 

A recent study undertaken by Meta and The Geena Davis Institute revealed that online advertising, which one would expect to be more progressive, isn’t immune from these restrictive representations either. The creative analysis revealed that underrepresentation is a significant issue, with certain groups often omitted from depictions. For example, people with disabilities were severely underrepresented in online ads (present in only 1.1% of the ads examined) as were members of the LGBTQ+ community (0.3%).

Mainstream advertising still tends to predominantly feature a narrow spectrum of individuals, but some advertisers have understood that consumers want to see themselves reflected in the media they consume. They recognise that inclusive advertising is not just an ethical imperative but a smart business move. Many studies show ads with more inclusive storytelling are more effective and drive higher purchase intent. That should be a significant motivation for brands to work harder on this agenda.

From Tokensim to Authenticity

Inclusive storytelling needs to go beyond surface-level diversity and tokenism, and navigate its way into nuanced narratives that resonate with various groups. Tokenism, the practice of featuring a few diverse individuals without truly embracing diversity in all aspects of a campaign, is an issue that persists in the advertising industry. This is evident when brands release ads on various “days” dedicated to diversity, but have a completely different approach in their mainstream campaigns.  Consumers today understand the world of brands much more and can differentiate between genuine long-term brand narratives and opportunistic placements.

Navigating the complex terrain of diversity and inclusion in advertising representation requires a thoughtful and strategic approach. Advertisers must be committed to fostering an inclusive environment both in the workplace and the ecosystem and in the campaigns they create. 

And it starts by having diverse teams within the advertising ecosystem. From brand managers to creators and people behind the camera, diversity of perspectives shapes more nuanced and authentic representation in campaigns. There is a need to actively recruit from underrepresented groups to ensure a broad range of voices is contributing to the creative process. This also helps to recognize and embrace intersectionality—the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, gender, sexuality, and more. Understanding that individuals often have multiple identities can help build campaigns that reflect this complexity. Collaboration with individuals from different backgrounds in the creative process helps ensure authenticity and cultural sensitivity.

Diversity in casting and stock images are other areas that need to be strengthened. A casual search for stock images shows biases in search functionalities that put forth images of only a certain kind. Using a variety of models, actors, and influencers who authentically represent different ethnicities, genders, abilities, and ages can help make the advertising space more vibrant.

One of the other areas that brands can take inspiration from is consumers themselves. Consumers today broadcast their lives in truly authentic ways. They accept and share their identities and views in ways that are lived in the everyday. Whether it is their age, grey hair, body type, gender identity, caste identity, neurodivergence, or being differently abled, consumers are no longer shying away from creating compelling narratives featuring their truth in ways that appeal to a broad spectrum of audiences. OTT and films too have begun to tell more diverse stories, and we see an exciting infusion of diverse talent both behind the scenes and on screen. However, we are yet to see that momentum in advertising.

Standing out of the clutter

Diversity of representation delivers what brands seek- newer narratives and clutter-breaking stories that make consumers take notice, and respond to brands. Data and metrics also have a significant role in demonstrating the positive impact of authentic representation on brand perception and consumer loyalty, and these are worthwhile investments for brands that allow them to evaluate and course-correct as they go along this journey.

The Advertising Standards Council of India lays down that ads cannot discriminate against individuals or groups based on their ethnicities, sexual orientation, physical abilities, body types, age, nationalities etc. However, this is the minimum standard. Progressive advertising goes beyond the absence of discrimination to actively build inclusive stories. Alliances like The Unstereotype Alliance, convened by UN Women, also get the industry to collaborate and adopt better practices, and share frameworks and metrics that help more and more organizations navigate this agenda.

A more equal world is something advertising can contribute to. And in doing so, make itself appeal more to its audiences. This offers a fantastic opportunity to brands, and any brand that is not actively working on more inclusive communication may find itself excluded from consumer minds.

This article is penned by Manisha Kapoor, CEO and Secretary General, ASCI & is a part of a monthly article series for raising awareness.

Disclaimer: The article features the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the stance of the publication.

Source: Social Samosa

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