Oscars 2019: Diversity, inclusion and the media opportunity

Why the Academy Awards should act as a wake-up call to the ad industry.

Half of the films in contention for best picture at this year’s Oscars addressed issues of ethnicity. This is perhaps unsurprising, given some of the messaging that has come out of the White House during the Trump administration.

It would appear that Spike Lee was unhappy that his hard-hitting BlacKkKlansman lost out to the gentler Green Book. However, I’d argue that the bigger picture is actually hugely positive. The Oscars have a long history of being politically charged and, while it’s important that these issues are raised at such a high-profile event, audiences have already embraced diversity.

Last night’s ceremony showed us that representation in films can lead to winning results. What’s interesting is that these issues aren’t just apparent in "worthy" Oscar-bait films (although it didn’t do Alfonso Cuarón any harm for Roma) – inclusivity and diversity loomed large in many of last year’s biggest commercial hits.  

Black Panther has swiftly become the poster child for cinematic diversity, with a black lead cast and director, not to mention painting a picture of Afro-futurism that has simply never been seen in a blockbuster movie before. It picked up three (admittedly technical) Oscars, but the fact that it has made $1.3bn in global box office takings hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Leaving aside some problematic accusations against its director, Bohemian Rhapsody also picked up four awards, including the coveted best actor gong for Rami Malek. Perhaps the spiritual successor to The Greatest Showman (another mega-hit that celebrated inclusion), the critic-proof Freddie Mercury biopic grossed $860.9m, despite only having a production budget of just over $52m. Not bad for a film about a band that eschewed cool and comprised (self-proclaimed) misfits making music for other misfits. 

The argument for diversity and inclusion in business and marketing has been made many times. McKinsey & Company’s often-cited report Why Diversity Matters demonstrates why diversity matters in terms of impact on the bottom line – but nowhere is this more apparent than on the big screen.

The box office success of standout productions such as Black Panther, Call Me By Your Name and Crazy Rich Asians have all broken moulds by presenting new angles on a wide range of identities and cultures.

UM has been carrying out an ongoing investigation into identity stereotypes, UK by UM, and its latest revelations indicate that productions like these have great significance:

  • 71% of participants said they feel TV and film have the power to challenge stereotypes

  • 60% claimed to enjoy watching TV and film productions that have a diverse cast

  • 48% feel that, for too long, TV and film have failed to represent society authentically

The survey also tested 20 recent diversely cast TV and film productions, studying the perceptions among people who had watched them. The results indicate that these titles have made a big impression – particularly among younger audiences, who seem especially receptive to inclusive storytelling:

  • 59% of people who watched Crazy Rich Asians "liked seeing ethnically diverse characters in this film" (up to 64% among 16- to 24-year-olds), while 53% felt this way about Black Panther (73% of 16-24s)

  • 59% (again) who watched Wonder Woman claimed they "liked seeing female lead characters" in this film (72% of 16-24s), while 52% who watched the BBC’s Killing Eve felt this way (72% among 16-24s)

  • 62% enjoyed seeing LGBT+ protagonists in Call Me By Your Name (63% of the youth group)

  • While only 29% of Mary Poppins Returns viewers claimed they liked seeing a positive representation of a single-parent family, it’s notable that this proportion grew to 53% for 16- to 24-year-olds

In fact, the growing number of movies with diversity at their heart have played a major part in elevating the cinema industry to one of the UK’s most active and bullish media channels. There was 5% year-on-year box office growth in 2018 – a year that also saw a heatwave, a World Cup and massive increase in on-demand video content.   

That’s great news for movie studios, of course, and also for brands looking for a channel to connect with keen and attentive consumers. But audiences who clearly favour more inclusion and diversity in TV and film – and the important 16- to 24-year-old audience in particular – certainly aren’t going to be receptive to ads that peddle old and outdated stereotypes.

As Kathryn Jacob, chief executive of Pearl & Dean, notes: "This new data shows that this is a fantastically exciting era for cinema. The big screen has a unique power to give a platform to new, more authentic stories about different groups in society and even to battle prejudices. Brave brands are rightly rushing to connect with audiences in this environment."

As the tired old saying goes: money talks. If certain predictions are to be believed, there is a real possibility of a post-Brexit recession. So it makes sense that chief financial officers and budget holders in our industry are being held to higher levels of accountability than ever before.

In the shadow of this looming prospect, the story shining out of cinemas is clear: not only are inclusive ideas more interesting and more accurate reflections of society, diversity actually sells. It would seem authentic stories move wallets as well as hearts.

Michael Brown is head of insight at UM

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