Guest Blog: Lessons on effective black representation in ads

The latest ‘Feeling Seen’ report from advertising effectiveness leaders, System1, focuses on the emotional response to Black representation in advertising. It showed us what we already suspected – diversity in advertising pays back more.

Looking closely at examples of Black representation in advertising, System1’s testing concluded that all ads saw a large uplift in effectiveness when tested with a Black British sample. This concludes that, like most good diverse advertising, feeling seen, feels good – when people see their life or culture represented on screen, it resonates more powerfully and emotionally. It also proved that, to a point, diverse advertising unites us – advertising that strongly appeals to a minority group will usually appeal to the general population, proving there’s no downside to making inclusive work.

So, if anyone needed further proof that displaying diversity is worth it, this study should be enough to settle the debate.

The research should be considered seminal, but, as an industry, there is still a need for support in ‘getting it right’. We need to be taking what the research is proving and then understanding how to put it into action.

As our own research has shown in the soon to be published report Racial Stereotyping in Advertising for the ASA (together with Cog Research), audiences didn’t just want representation, but were particularly sensitive to the authenticity of that representation, and the characteristics and roles played by minority and Black audiences.

Too often, Black audiences are over-indexing in advertising as they add a dose of cultural coolness, through their roles as music, sporting or soulful and spiritual figures. Yet, mistakes are made about portrayal and the subtleties of characters and ethnic cultures, often overdoing and disproportionately casting Black characters as spoken word artists, or laid back.

We know why this can often be where it falls down – because as an industry, we know that representation behind the camera, at castings, writing scripts or decision making is still not representative enough. This points to an industry that knows what sells, and yet choses to only use it selectively. You could call this ‘race washing’. Portraying inclusion and equity in advertising, yet failing to notice its deficiencies beyond the screen and take the appropriate action to deliver inclusion and equity.

For most, the increase of Black actors on screen is a step in the right direction, although for some it is like a magician’s distraction from the real world action we’d all like to see.

So what do we still need to do to get it right?

Diversify your own team

This starts with those writing the brief and signing the cheques. If you aren’t reflective of the world you are serving, then you are only setting yourself up for making intuitively wrong judgements. Ensure your own teams are diverse and also included so they feel they can speak up and can still progress.

Don’t trust the lone Black voice in the room. 

They don’t represent the multicultural and generational, sexual and gendered differences of Black populations and the wider global Black culture, which feeds much of the entertainment we enjoy. Be sure to validate your ideas, and ads with samples that are representative, reflective and diverse. Our recent Voices4all initiative highlighted just some of the huge flaws in what was assumed to be fair ‘National Representative’ panels.

Pick the right media

Ensure your media talks to the people it features and aims to connect with. Too often media is bought using overly simplified and outdated demographic classifications.

Democratise your creative process 

Break down the subjectivity and hierarchy-driven decision making of the traditional creative process, and replace it with a smarter, more creatively democratic agile system. Increase your sources of creative input at an earlier stage, and empower the makers of the work through audience validation, built in to guide them through to creation.

This shouldn’t be brand new information but certainly something we are still having to shed light on – fortunately, we are now seeing fantastic examples of advertising, such as Google, Virgin Media and Nationwide – brands going to great lengths to get the cultural details right to connect with Black audiences and beyond. This new research by System1 proves the effectiveness – I’m hoping when we celebrate Black History Month in 2022 we can celebrate more authentic representation in advertising on screen, and more inclusion and diversity directing and creating it.

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