The author says the first thing advertisers need to understand about representation is that it's not just about doing good. Devising diverse and inclusive media strategies is table stakes for maximally effective advertising, especially during a time when more than half the U.S. population falls into at least one of many minority groups: Black, Latinx, Asian, LGBTQ+, neurodivergent and more.
The second imperative is to grapple with the complexities of inclusive advertising.
This means that connecting with diverse audiences is not as simple as sticking a Black actor in a TV spot. Advertisers who want to achieve stronger representation and unlock the business results it drives will need to craft holistically inclusive and long-term media strategies. Advertisers can foster more effective strategies by considering the ontological suitability of their messengers, investing in diverse media environments and planning for the long term. Here's what each of those steps entails.
Choosing messengers is a step where many brands go wrong when it comes to fostering more diverse and inclusive advertising. They pour resources into determining their message and who their ideal audiences are, but when it comes to choosing a representative to amplify their message to those audiences, they select someone with an at-best superficial connection to the message and audience.
Advertisers need to be nuanced in their interpretation of the role the person they are casting will play in relation to their message. Are you just exploiting a person for their connection to a community you want to reach? Or is the prospective messenger a fit for the brand, message, audience and environment in which the message will be distributed?
To be vigilant about this, think about ontological suitability. Ontology is the study of being. When you choose a messenger, ask yourself: Does this person's essence connect deeply to that of our brand and target audiences? For example, beyond searching for a Black celebrity, are you looking for a professorial type, a wild card or a nurturer? Has the person you're considering done work or built a brand aligned with the message they will be amplifying?
Always think beyond basic identity categories to identify the most helpful representatives and transcend exploitative, uncreative marketing.
Support diverse media environments
Another common error in attempts at diverse and inclusive advertising is that brands partner with a spokesperson from an underrepresented identity group to amplify their message but fail to invest in any of the environments dedicated to the communities they want to reach. Or they take a radical and distinctive persona and force them to tamp down their blackness, queerness or any other uniqueness for a mainstream audience.
An often-seen error is when a brand leverages a Black celebrity and mainstream media without also supporting Black media. Say, for example, a brand was to partner with Lakeith Stanfield, a Black performer known for his unique comedic cadence. The brand could reach millions of Black viewers by buying ads on CNBC, but when doing so, the best practice would be to let Stanfield deliver in a manner authentic to the persona for which millions of fans appreciate him, not whitewashing his persona for crossover. Plus, the brand would need to support Black media, radio, television, ad technology and creators to avoid shutting out the success drivers of the environments where the target audience engage and thrive.
Of course, this problem is not limited to Black advertising or audiences. The same superficial engagement happens with all underrepresented communities. Advertisers, agencies and publishers can overcome these issues by ensuring the people behind and in front of the camera represent and understand the communities they are targeting.
Plan for the long term
The third, and perhaps most often neglected, step brands must take to execute effective and ethical inclusive advertising strategies is to invest for the long term. Often, brands target Black viewers during a product launch or when a tragic event occurs that convinces them they need to say something to an audience they have been ignoring.
Short-term bids for Black attention are not the way to earn the trust, and dollars, of that community or any other. Advertisers should follow the example of companies like Verizon, P&G, and General Motors. All of them have tried to figure out diverse and inclusive advertising from every angle. They are supporting diverse media, casting representative talent behind and in front of the camera, diversifying their own teams as well as those of agencies and adopting consistently inclusive messaging.
This work isn't easy. Hiring talent and buying representative media over many years may cost millions in time and resources. But these are the steps that help brands build relationships with communities that stand the test of time. These are the steps that allow advertisers to transcend exploitation, doing well and good for diverse audiences.