It would be easy to say that the world we live in today is different than when what we understand as modern advertising was created. With the rise of social media and widespread access to information, videos, and news, we live in a world where most issues become cases of public opinion. For decades, advertisers had been among those “neglecting black accomplishments.” Until the ’70s, as Advertising Age put it, ads in the U.S. represented blacks as “Aunt Jemimas, Uncle Bens and Rastuses—individuals subservient to whites.” The advertising industry must adapt to this change internally and ensure that there is diversity behind campaigns to avoid the negative consequences of a spot going viral for that wrong reasons and damaging a company’s brand.
A popular trend that has been observed across social media is the viral nature of videos that display situations that highlight the racial and ethnic prejudice that some people still have. In May, a man went on a racist rant against employees and customers at a New York lunch spot for speaking Spanish and threatened to call ICE to get them “kicked out of my country,” in an incident captured on video. Because of social media, this video went viral and his reputation and career has been tainted forever as a consequence. A variety of instances like this have occurred and gone viral: a group of friends leaving their AirBnB and getting racially profiled by a white neighbor and having the police called on them, black men being harassed in a park for having a barbeque by a white woman as she threatens to call the police, and many more. What used to be situations that went unnoticed by the world now have platforms to spread rapidly and have become a part of pop culture, changing the socio-political climate that advertising must operate in.
Based on recent campaigns by popular brands, it is clear that brands are trying to find ways to cater and appeal to a more diverse pool of consumers. In early 2017, Pantene introduced its Gold Series, an eight-piece collection of hair products formulated to address the specific needs of black women. Pantene debuted its first Gold Series campaign video. Per Pantene’s YouTube page, the spot celebrates “women and girls who are beautiful, confident, vibrant, and elegant and who draw personal strength from the strength of their hair — its texture, its style and its history.” In the one-minute clip, black women of all ages and skin tones flaunt their hair for the camera, demonstrating that black hair, and beautiful hair, isn’t limited to one texture. Similarly, Lush has continuously delivered all-inclusive campaigns marketing their products towards people of all walks of life, including ethnic and sexual orientation differences. But how can this be done even more effectively by other brands and companies when there is such disparity of race within the advertising industry?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, African Americans and Hispanics made up 5% of the ad industry workforce and in as recent as 2014, African Americans made up 5.8% of the workforce. And while these examples I mentioned before were relatively successful and did not cause public backlash, some other campaigns highlight the potential dangers to brand safety if the industry continues to not accurately reflect the consumer base companies are trying to appeal to.
There have been cases of brands making an attempt to appeal to a larger, diverse demographic or use sensitive material and topics to promote a brand. Sometimes they fail, and when you look at the team behind the idea it can become a bit clearer as to how and why a campaign missed the mark.
Shea Moisture, traditionally a brand associated with women of color, has been accused of ignoring its black roots by producing an advert largely staring white women. The message is: ‘Break free from hair hate’, and features a mixed race woman who talks about embracing her curls…followed by a redhead who used to dye her hair blonde and a blonde with limp, straight hair. Rather than including the type of hair that get the most hate, notably afro, the advert focuses on primarily Caucasian hair struggles. While redheads might put up with some hair abuse, women of color face a daily battle when it comes to beauty representation in media and advertising – and acceptance in wider society. Shea Moisture addressed their mistake by saying that they “missed the mark” and pulled the ad following an uproar on twitter.
A similar tale is now infamous with the brand Pepsi following an unfortunate and misguided campaign that featured Kendall Jenner leading a protest and ultimately settling things with police by simply sharing a can of the company’s signature beverage with an officer. The ad was pulled twenty-four hours after it haired, prompted by a swift consumer backlash against the appropriation of protest imagery to market a soft drink during a time that the Black Lives Matter movement was in full force. The very nature of the ad makes it clear that the creative team lacked a wider sense of context. Only six people are credited with the ad and it is definitely worth noting that the tone-deaf nature of the ad could be explained by all of those people being white.
The demographic shift of the ad audience has far outpaced the demographic shift of the ad industry. This has shown in the way multiple campaigns have missed the mark and caused a public uproar. In the same way videos can go viral and public opinion can ruin a reputation, campaigns that keep missing the mark can damage the image of a brand and become a part of public opinion. In a world that is becoming increasingly more diverse each day, it behooves corporations to incorporate a solid and genuine commitment to diverse work forces into their strategic plans.
As is the case in most large organizations, the pace is quick and decisions are being made rapidly. Things are going to slip through the cracks, no doubt. However, when you are marketing and advertising heavily to consumers, it is imperative that you have individuals who are on your team who are capable of making decisions from diverse perspectives. These much-needed staffing decisions shouldn’t be made simply for the sole purpose of a particular campaign or project, either. Talented, diverse representation across the board on an ongoing base is not just good business and brand safety, but it’s the right thing to do.
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