When Channel 4 executives decided they wanted their advertiser partners to get involved in the broadcaster’s year of disability ahead of the Paralympics last summer, they knew they needed to do something drastic. What they settled on was giving away £1 million in airtime to the best idea for an ad featuring people with disabilities.
Mars-owned Maltesers was victorious with ads featuring people with disabilities taking a light-hearted view of stories inspired by real experiences. The resulting ads, created by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO in collaboration with Scope, fit in with the brand’s Look on the light side campaign, and were popular with staff and the public alike.
“Advertising is shy at showing minority groups which is a missed trick, as Maltesers showed with the knockout sales success of its ads starring disabled people. Diversity doesn’t constrain businesses, it liberates them,” says Dan Brooke, chief marketing and communications officer at Channel 4.
That Channel 4 had to give away ad space to get brands to include people with disabilities shows the failure of UK marketing to reflect the public at large. A study from Lloyds Banking Group in December found 0.06 per cent of people in ads from the top 20 advertisers were registered disabled compared with 17.9 per of the population.
Single parents, people over 65, the LGBT community and people of Asian descent were also under-represented. Black people and people of mixed heritage were slightly over-represented, although this was not the perception of the public at large.
“The UK referendum and US presidential election results served as an uncomfortable reminder that we might not be quite as in touch as we thought we were,” says Sarah Golding, chief executive of CHI & Partners and president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA). “That said, we’ve never been an industry to shy away from our problems. Many of us are now investing talent, time and money to breaking through the echo chamber.”
Alex Grieve and Adrian Rossi, executive creative directors at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, concur: “As an industry are we getting it right? No. But are we trying? And we will not stop trying until we do not have to think about it.”
However, one of the major problems is the homogeneous nature of the people creating the work. Some estimates suggest just 3 per cent of those running creative departments are female. According to the IPA, 27.1 per cent of the most senior level of management at UK agencies are female and just 4.7 per cent are from an ethnic minority. The IPA’s target is for those figures to reach 40 per cent and 15 per cent respectively by 2020.
“Until our businesses and agencies properly represent our audiences, we will keep misrepresenting them,” says Nicky Bullard, chairman and chief creative officer at MRM Meteorite.
It is a sentiment shared by other sectors. When picking up a Bafta for BBC Two’s Muslims Like Us, the producer Mobeen Azhar attributed its success to people with experience of the Muslim community working at every stage of the show’s production.
Advertising is shy at showing minority groups which is a missed trick
Michele Oliver, vice president of marketing at Mars Chocolate UK, agrees the most significant change she can make is behind the camera. Her initiatives to make this happen include updating Mars’ casting process, ensuring a female director gets to pitch for every ad, introducing apprenticeship schemes and funding scholarships to the National Film and Television School.
“If you have different people sat around the table, you start to change the agenda,” Ms Oliver explains. “At its heart the issue lies in the talent in the industry.”
As marketers and their agencies pursue this journey it is crucial they avoid tokenism. This is applicable in both the search for talent on and off screen as nobody wants to be reduced to a statistic. For example, Richard Brim, the chief creative officer at Adam & Eve/DDB, says when looking for the main character for the John Lewis Christmas ads the priority is to find a great kid, not tick a box.
“You do see advertisers trying to specify diversity up front, but there is a danger you’ve already lost before you’ve even got started because it might not be believable,” says Mr Brim. “Authenticity is the most important thing.”
When the influential networking group Women in Advertising and Communications London debated the portrayal of women in advertising in 2015, it decided ads lagged behind reality. At the time there had been some flashes for optimism with the Always’ Like a girl ad and Sport England’s This girl can. Since then encouraging campaigns such as rugby star Gareth Thomas’s Guinness ad and Unilever’s Lynx relaunch have also challenged male stereotypes.