Poetry Strikes A Chord For Nationwide’s Black Audience

Poetry Strikes A Chord For Nationwide’s Black Audience


Today marks the start of Black History Month in the UK, and it’s a chance to think about how Black people have been shown in British advertising, and how they appear now. Black culture has been a source of inspiration for advertisers for decades, from the classic Levi’s “Launderette” ad’s use of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” to Channel 4’s brilliant use of Public Enemy in their Paralympics ads. But Black people have been rarer behind and in front of the camera. Blackness in UK advertising has been sometimes heard but not seen.

A lot of brands want that to change, with a focus on diversity on screen that includes Black people. It’s far less rare now to see Black Britons star in adverts, though still distinctive enough that when a major brand casts a Black family in one part of a multi-ad Christmas campaign it’s treated as a salvo in a culture war.

In our recent Feeling Seen report, published in partnership with ITV and diversity specialists DECA, we looked at some ads starring Black British people from the perspective of both the audience as a whole and a specially recruited Black British sample. For Black History Month we’ve refreshed and expanded this section of the study, looking at more ads which star Black people and tell their stories. Nationwide’s “How Would Things Be Different?” is one such ad, part of its long-running campaign where people read poetry on camera – in this case the poet is Black rapper Melvillous.

Some viewers like the creativity, quirkiness and inspirational messages in these poetic ads. Others find them annoying. We see this range of response in full in the “Nat Rep” (general population) sample, for whom the ad is a 2-Star effort with fairly average emotional response overall.

But when we showed the ad to a Black British audience we got a very different response. The ad saw a huge uplift among the custom sample, jumping to 4.7-Stars – turning an average ad into a very strong one. The Black audience showed greater happiness and higher emotional intensity than the general one, and its key associations with the ad were emotional not functional (“Positive” and “encouraging” rather than “Prize draw” and “bank”).

This repeats the pattern we saw in Feeling Seen – when diverse groups see people like them on screen, it has the potential to create a big uplift in their emotional response. The message in Nationwide’s ad is not at all specific to Black people or the Black community – it’s on a more general theme of diversity and respect – but when it’s delivered by a Black man it cuts through for those viewers and they really respond to the ad.

That’s good news for Nationwide and other brands doing work for Black History Month, but there’s a tricky underlying problem. The Black audience is important, but small, and among the general population this is still an underwhelming ad.

It’s important to note that the ad doesn’t underperform among the wider audience because it stars a Black person. We know this because we can see Nationwide’s other ads in the campaign, some of which score much higher – and one of their top scoring poetry ads is from Sugar J Poet, another Black British writer.

So we know the uplift for Melvillous’ ad is what we called a “Diversity Dividend” in Feeling Seen – a genuine effectiveness bonus created by inclusion. But what we also saw in Feeling Seen is that the better the ad performs among a general population, the more effective it is among diverse groups too. The point isn’t to choose between resonant, inclusive advertising and wider appeal – you can have both.

In the case of this ad, the issue isn’t the poem, but its setting. Reciting his verse while sat on a lonely hilltop means Melvillous feels like a detached figure and the ad loses dynamism and connection. It would have surely scored higher if he’d delivered it in a more vibrant environment, like a busy street. This point is one made strongly by Orlando Wood in his upcoming IPA book Look Out (the follow-up to Lemon) – as society emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, advertisers need to emphasise connection, community and wholeness, not lonely detachment.

We’re presenting the Black History Month findings in a special webinar on the 14th October, where we’ll spotlight brands making diverse ads with wide appeal and look at the best ways to hit the sweet spot of a high scoring ad which gets even more intensity and love from diverse communities.