Why we’re still getting representation wrong, and how to get it right

Rich Miles says campaigns must be representative and authentic to their whole audiences
Rich Miles says campaigns must be representative and authentic to their whole audiences

Diversity is being tokenistically included in campaigns but authenticity is still being excluded in so many of them

Your client has asked your agency to make a new campaign. “Fuck, yeah,” you all think. This is your chance to create something new, something award-winning, something different.

Strategy form a tight brief, in turn briefing the creatives (who’ve already got their pens/keyboards/touchscreens at the ready)… and you begin making your ad.

The client buys the idea after a bit of back and forth, but they’re onboard.

Then, in a blink of an eye, the directors’ treatments are in and the shoot is set for four days' time. You’re all scrambling to get everything sorted then someone mentions diversity…

This is the point at which most of the inclusion in our content goes wrong.

In the majority of content we see today, where a person from a marginalised group (for example an ethnic group, LGBT+, disabled community), the character is found during casting and placed in a previously formed narrative that has more often than not been created with a white, straight, able-bodied character in mind. Even if it wasn’t outwardly spoken about or intentional, this is the vision most people have of characters when picturing a script. And this is because they are drawing on their own experience.

When we put diversity in our content only at the casting stage, yes – diversity is being included, but authenticity is being excluded. This nearly always leaves our work coming across as tokenistic, because none of the cultural nuances or lived experiences of people from those groups has been incorporated into the set, wardrobe, actions or tone of the character. A lot of people may not notice, but the important people will. If you are from the group that’s being represented, you can immediately tell that what you’re seeing isn’t you.

It may look like you, but it’s not you. It also means that other groups are seeing inaccurate portrayals of others, which is never good.

And the biggest mistake is that we aren’t speaking to the right people with the right lived experience and cultural understanding, at the right time in the creative process. And if we are going to represent an audience, and essentially ask for their investment both emotionally and monetarily, then we need to be doing it right.

As we all know, when we get it wrong, it’s ALL audiences who hold us accountable, not just those of the community.

A year ago, we created The Diversity Standards Collective to connect brands and agencies to diverse professionals and consumers from across the globe to help these brands and agencies gain insight, guidance and validation on any content they make, enabling them and educating them to always get it right.

One agency, Lucky Generals, has been on the journey with us since the beginning.

Partnering us to work on Amazon's 2021 Holiday campaign, Co-op’s last three campaigns, and Zoopla and SSE among others, together, we have spoken to multiple communities across global markets all in aid of authenticity as opposed to just inclusion.

Recently, Lucky Generals and The DSC worked on Zoopla’s latest campaign, where the creatives had pulled together a set of spots featuring various communities including South Asian, black and 50-plus. All these groups have been misrepresented historically – and are still, even today – so Lucky Generals and Zoopla placed their work in front of a series of expert professional consultants from each community to help bake in and reflect more cultural nuances and wean out any stereotypes, outdated, overused – and inauthentic – ways of representing them.

For example, often we see black/mixed black families only living in central city/estate settings. The DSC’s consultants recommended presenting this family as moving to an affluent country home to help flip the narrative; they also advised on those smaller, less noticeable, but still important factors, such as how to style the young black girl’s hair appropriately.

Here is some direct feedback our consultants gave the teams.

Biracial black DSC consultant: “For a black family you want to avoid the connotation that they have no class, style or wealth. The parents could be interior designers and have a banging house, they may not just be a nurse or receptionist – let’s not perpetuate the lower-class black family, instead put them in the country home.

“Also, the young girl's black hair, make sure you don’t just pull it back in a bun. When I see it in ads, it feels lazy and doesn’t accentuate her natural hair.”

South Asian families are usually portrayed only as being in large multi-generational households and everyone wears a sari. The DSC consultants advised that saris are reserved for very special occasions, and aren’t something you’d just bung on for lunch at home.

Also, the fact that this young couple live alone and aren’t wearing wedding rings is a refreshing way of representing young people from this community.

South Asian consultant: “I love the scripts and boards, it shows no South Asain stereotypes, it’s normal everyday life. It’s refreshing to see a family that’s not large. I can see myself in this story.”

Essentially, what this shows is that representation and authenticity cannot work as an afterthought. This element of your campaign needs as much time, effort and thought as any other stage in the creative process.

So as soon as that “fuck, yeah” has left your brain, your next thought should be “How do I make this campaign representative and authentic to its whole audience?”.

Rich Miles is chief executive and co-founder of The Diversity Standards Collective

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