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3 Steps to Help Improve Diversity in Advertising (And Why That’s Smart)

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

Diversity. Ever wondered what it actually does? I mean besides obvious things like expanding perspectives (and frankly being the right thing to do), have you ever wondered about diversity’s business value?

If you’re like me, you’ve pondered this for a long time. You may have found articles about diversity’s impact on team dynamics, or the higher quality of ideas that come from diverse voices. You may have even found that sometimes these qualitative measures are equated to the value of the innovation a team has delivered. Maybe. But I doubt you’ve found anything that concretely, quantitatively correlates diversity with business value. I hadn’t anyway.

So I—along with two brilliant strategists on my team, Lindsay Wade and Nada Khan—decided to investigate this. And what we discovered was inspiring:

Over the past two years, the stock price of brands that featured the most diversity in their advertising performed 69 percent better than that of brands that featured the least. And those same diversity-friendly brands received BrandIndex consumer preference scores that were 83 percent higher than their counterparts.

Let’s dig into the details.

Study design: Correlating diversity and business growth

First, here are definitions as we used them: Diversity is a minority or other underrepresented group being invited to the party. In advertising, this means said group is visibly present—but not necessarily more, and possibly shown in a stereotypical way. Representation and inclusion are not only about a group getting an invitation to the party, but also knowing they’re able to show up and participate fully and authentically. In ads this means any diverse set of characters that are presented transcend passive, token roles and portray actual, relatable, three-dimensional humans.

As an ad agency owned by a consultancy, we designed the study so that the findings would be as compelling and actionable to our creatives as it would to our consulting colleagues. We focused on how advertising with diverse casting (creative) impacts an organization’s bottom line (business), as measured by stock price and customer perception.

Then we gathered all of the 30-second television spots (17,000 data points!) from the top 50 media spenders in the U.S. over the past couple of years. This not only gave us a nice mix of industries (including CPG, automotive, FSI, consumer electronics, telecom, retail and pharma), but represented the loudest voices in the advertising industry. This sample also represented reach, which we believed would give us the best proxy for impact on cultural perceptions of brand and D&I.

Next, we spoke with Dr. William O’Barr, professor of anthropology at Duke University, and Dr. Kevin Thomas, professor of advertising at University of Texas, Austin. They helped us create a scorecard to track whether there was diversity in the casting as well as whether the ads featured diverse characters in a primary role, in positions of power or who defied stereotypes.

Finally, we compared these scores with stock growth and customer sentiment (as measured by BrandIndex) for the brands represented in the ads in the past seven quarters. We chose that time period to track leading and lagging indicators, and control for other market conditions that happened before the ads were debuted.

So what did we learn? Diversity in ads does exist, but is rarely representative or inclusive.

For example:

  • 94 percent of brands had at least one occurrence of a woman in a primary role, but most instances were stereotypical roles like an empathetic mom or boy-crazy girl.

  • 92 percent of brands had at least one occurrence of a person of color in a primary role, but only 15 percent were culturally represented by more than their skin color.

  • Of the occurrences of diversity in primary roles across all 250 measured ads, only three included an LGBTQ+ character.

Other underrepresented attributes like disability and age seem to have been overlooked completely. Less than 1 percent of ads represented people with disabilities in both speaking and non-speaking roles, while, according to the Centers for Disease Control, one in four American adults live with a disability. And though 43 percent of brands had at least one occurrence of a senior citizen in their ads, less than 30 percent of those occurrences put the characters in a position of power.

But representation makes all the difference in diversity and inclusion.

When brands made work that gave dimension to people beyond gender or skin color stereotypes, we saw a clear pattern: a 15 percent increase in consumer perception, and a 7 percent boost in stock price. In other words, D&I in advertising is most effective when it’s done well. And D&I done well is less about checking a box, and more about recognizing that diverse people are complex, relatable human beings.

How we keep diversity in our work (and you can too)

We were proud of how we stacked up when we applied the test to our own work, but we also wanted to hold ourselves accountable in the future. So we’re sharing our three-step process for D&I in advertising with the industry at large—so we can all do better.

First, we help clients understand the business case for D&I in their ads, provisioning account teams with data from our study to start diversity conversations. We also make space in production processes and timelines, making the effort to get diversity and representation right.

Next, we’ve updated the way we build target customer profiles. Instead of a blanket description like “women, 25-54, with 2 kids,” we include an infographic that shows the representative nuances of the audience.

This changes our briefings, but more important it changes how our creative teams imagine their audiences.

Finally, we think critically about the way we represent characters in our creative work.

We try to build our teams with people from diverse backgrounds and points of view, as well as with different and surprising ideas. We use this lens to recruit talent as well. This means that once everyone’s in the room, it’s a lot easier to ask them to imagine diverse and representative characters in primary roles, positions of power or ways that defy stereotypes.

Doing better with diversity and inclusion in business is both a challenge and a result. If you’re a brand manager, CMO or agency leader who wants to make work that drives growth and the bottom line, consider thinking about how you represent the people in your ads. The numbers don’t lie—it really does matter.


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