We need to begin really 'seeing' what’s going on around us

Gen Kobayashi
Gen Kobayashi

Lessons learned from Ways of Seeing.

During lockdown, I finally got around to reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. The 1972 documentary was a masterpiece, so I’d been meaning to read the book for some time. If you haven’t read it yet, I strongly recommend it.

Berger opens the book with the line: "The relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled." This sums up Berger’s entire philosophy of challenging the orthodoxies that had existed around fine art for hundreds of years, prompting the reader to question and see art differently. 

For example, Berger’s writing openly challenged the objectifying of women in classical European paintings, writing: "You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting 'Vanity', thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.”

Berger was obsessed with the societal context in which art exists and the potential harm or good this art can do to people. It’s this concern that drove him to publicly donate all his winnings from his Booker Prize award for his novel G to the Black Panthers in response to the Booker company’s long history in the sugar trade in Africa. 

As an industry, I think we could all learn from Berger’s obsession with understanding the impact our creative output can have on society.

In light of the Black Lives Matter movement igniting across the world, I feel now is the time to begin questioning the role our “art” has played into the biases that exist within our society today.

For example, a recent study carried out by Lloyds Banking Group concluded that just 7% of ads in the UK featured someone from the black, Asian and minority-ethnic community as lead protagonist.

No wonder 32% of black people and 28% of Asian people in the UK feel under-represented in advertising and, worse still, 34% of black people feel they are being misrepresented in the advertising that is being produced in this country. At best, black people and ethnic minorities feel invisible; at worst, they feel inaccurately portrayed. 

Or, indeed, of the 3.3 million Muslims living in the UK, 62% of them feel disappointed in the level of engagement from brands and advertisers, and 78% of them would like to see brands cater towards key religious festivals such as Ramadan, which is worth more than £200m annually. 

A recent Deloitte study found that 69% of brands that authentically represent diverse individuals in their communications see better performances in their stock price than brands that don’t. These are figures that should set alarm bells ringing for everyone in our industry. After all, almost every agency claims to drive profitability by playing a role in culture, but the signs would tell us that we are pretty far removed from large segments of culture right now. 

We’re looking at society, but we’re not really “seeing” it.

How to overcome this urgent issue? The best way would be to hire a more diverse workforce that better represents modern Britain. But the reality is that this will take time and, frankly, we don’t have the luxury of time.

So what else can we do in the short term? 

We can open our eyes and begin really seeing the wider context in which our advertising and communications exists today and begin asking urgent questions.

Question audience insight. As strategists, we need to ask ourselves if we’ve really understood our audience. Have we taken the time to speak to minority groups? Have we ensured that our qualitative research recruitment has been fully representative and held research recruiters to account on this?

Question the language used in our briefs. For example, does the language inadvertently alienate? A recent study into gender-biased language in job descriptions found that female applicants applying for manual front-line jobs at Thames Water saw an uptick of 43% after the removal of gender-biased language like “go getter” and “competitive”. We need to take as much care in the language of our briefs as we do in the language of the work.

Question the production process. For example, why is it that three in five ads still feature an all-white cast? Are we engaging specialist talent agencies like Looks Like Me to help us ensure our work is more representative of modern Britain? And let’s not just question the people in front of the camera but behind too. How many black or ethnic-minority directors are we working with, for example?

Just as Berger did in the 1970s, we need to keep questioning what we’re seeing in our industry and really understanding the context in which our creative work is being consumed, because if we don’t I fear culture will overtake us and leave us, and the brands we work for, behind.

Gen Kobayashi is chief strategy officer at Engine Creative

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