Blacklist terms such as 'gay' and 'black', and you could miss out on reaching Gen Z

Kenna: founded Brand Advance in 2017
Kenna: founded Brand Advance in 2017

Blacklisting cuts brands off from a whole generation with diverse interests, Brand Advance's Chris Kenna said.

If brands are serious about reaching Generation Z, they must urgently tackle the blacklisting of terms including "gay", "Muslim" and "black" – a practice that cuts off advertiser funding from large areas of the media targeted at people from those communities. 

That’s according to Chris Kenna, founder of Brand Advance (billed as the first dedicated global diversity media network), who argued that blacklisting was not just discriminatory, but extremely short-sighted, since it cuts off an important way for advertisers to increase reach.

Kenna, who was speaking at the ISBA annual conference in London yesterday (Thursday), pointed to research by Vice Media in 2018 that found six terms describing demographic groups – "Asian", "black", "gay", "interracial", "lesbian" and "Muslim" – were higher on most brands’ keyword block list than words such as "death", "gun", "heroin" and "rape".

"It’s our job to give our clients or our brand incremental reach by telling good brand stories in contextually relevant environments, and these are not small pocket niche demographics," he said, pointing out that LGBT+ consumer spend in the UK is worth £81bn, while the figure for black, Asian and minority-ethnic groups is £300bn.

But Kenna added that the missed opportunities of blacklisting were not just about the failure to reach these groups, but the changing habits and attitudes of young consumers in general.

He said: "I wish we could take away the word diversity and just call it extra reach or incremental reach. Everybody's wondering where do we find Gen Z other than on Instagram – well, they’re actually just consuming the media of these other demographics.

"You don’t need to be LGBT to be consuming queer fashion or to go to nightclubs you might be looking at in Gay Times. You don’t need to be black or minority ethnic to be into sports that are predominantly talked about in BAME publications."

Kenna – who is mixed-race and gay – used his talk to share some experiences from his own life, in which he has often had outsider status. He was born on the Isle of Man (which has a population of about 80,000), where he said he was the first black child to be born.

He later joined the SAS, served in Iraq and left after being hit by an explosive device. He came out as gay around the same time – but said a 2008 story in the News of the World claiming that he had been thrown out of the military due to his sexuality was incorrect.

Kenna has two children with different skin colours and said his experience raising them had made him determined to tackle discrimnatory advertiser practices. While his daughter is white, his son is mixed-race and "his media is blocked in the name of brand safety by brands talking about brand purpose". That is despite both children having the same spending power: "the bank of dad". 

Moreover, Kenna suggested that it was important to be honest about the prejudice that causes some terms to be blacklisted. "We know we’re blocking these words – and we know why," he said. "Black, we block it, because it could go next to gang-related. Muslim, we block it, because it could go next to an ISIS video. Gay, we block it, because it could go next to something unsavory."

But he said there were solutions to the situation. "We never really try to figure out a way to get around it and actually it’s really simple. You take all these publications and platforms – the reason the word is blocked and you can’t reach that contextually relevant environment is that it’s in among the internet. 

"We [Brand Advance] just took 500 publications and platforms that reach nearly a billion people each month and put them on another ad server, walled the garden, [and] made sure everybody within our garden is brand-safe."

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