It's beginning to look a lot like... representation

What do this year's Christmas ads tell us about how brands are addressing diversity and inclusion?

With weeks to go until the big day, we’ve already made it through the advent of Christmas advertising. First, let’s all just agree that brands and their agencies have "upped their BAME" in a big way – at least at surface level – in 2020.

Digging a little deeper, economists would call our attention to the industry-society counterbalance. The force of more ethnic representation in advertising, while being applauded by many in the industry, has been met by the force of racism and bigotry in pockets of the wider public. It’s a conversation we see play out day to day with our clients: how businesses can balance bravery, bigotry and Black Lives Matter, and how their agencies can keep up and be as diverse and inclusive as the customers they target. 

Let’s be clear. This conversation about embedding diversity and inclusion needs to start inside any organisation, looking at team make-up, leadership, culture and behaviours. There needs to be a product or brand truth driving any brief that mentions the word "diversity"; it can’t be a knee-jerk reaction to societal trends or the opportunity for PR. Blackout Tuesday and the widespread posting of black squares earlier this year set the bar for what people have come to expect from brands when it comes to addressing societal injustice. 

The risks notwithstanding, countless brands made it their mission to incorporate the movement for global racial equality into the biggest marketing moment of the year. What do their Christmas ads tell us about how brands are addressing diversity and inclusion? 

It’s got to be real 

More representative ads make sense only if they reflect the work taking place inside the organisation to truly represent and reflect the communities they are aiming to reach. Gone are the days of creating an aspirational world we want to be in. As we learned during Black History Month, internal change should take priority over external communications. We saw this with Currys PC World, which featured members of staff testing technology in customers’ homes – the fact one of them was not white was hardly noticed. 

Authenticity isn’t achieved only by casting employees, which many Covid campaigns did earlier this year. Amazon’s approach featured the story of a black ballerina played by Taïs Vinolo. The story we saw echoed her own – she was unable to return to ballet school in New York due to the pandemic and through the ad we watched how the show must go on. 

Casting black and brown people alone can lead to misrepresentation and cultural faux pas, but telling our stories elevates everyone involved by providing more opportunities for authenticity. 

We’ve stopped BAME-ing the messenger 

By telling more diverse stories, we are seeing fewer inauthentic portrayals of different communities. We’ve also started to see brands unpick the term "BAME" (which as I’ve said, ain’t the same) and focus on specific groups of people within it. 

Disney was one such example, telling the tale of a Filipino character over a three-minute spot. It sparked a conversation about the visibility of an often underrepresented group and showed us that, while the focus has rightly been on visibility towards black communities in 2020, it serves us all to continue to reflect a multitude of identities through advertising.

Representation needs a rapid response 

In our screenshot society, trying to spread representation of British society over multiple advertising spots carries a risk. Sainsbury’s [pictured, above] proved this spectacularly with one of three ads featuring a black father waxing lyrical about his gravy. 

For the first time, some people in mainstream society in the UK experienced something minority communities have felt for decades: a sense of not being represented in advertising. Despite what planners and creatives might tell their clients, consumers aren’t compelled to seek out entire 360 campaigns to seek the nuances in each Christmas execution. We just react to what we see. 

The comments are deplorable and signify the level of latent racism in the UK. If a brand is going to completely index towards one ethnicity or race in a single spot, then it needs to be ready with the response in the way Sainsbury’s has demonstrated this year. 

With more than 5,000 comments, we see a divisive debate that allows little space to ask questions and express opinions safely, a state that is symbolic of how we are all feeling about diversity and inclusion. 

A happy nuanced year 

We’ve come a long way in just a year. We’ll look back on 2020 and say it was the year brands took on racism with varying degrees of success. We have seen marked improvements in the creative work; however, the responses signal the difficult, ongoing conversation in the UK around identity and representation. 

Those conversations will likely take place over many kitchen tables across the country this Christmas while discussing the impact of Covid and the onset of Brexit. It’s encouraging that, as we try to build back better, going back to a time when advertising didn’t reflect modern British society will be impossible. 

After all, representation is for life, not just for Christmas. 

Asad Dhunna is founder and chief executive of diversity and inclusion consultancy The Unmistakables.

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