A recent report from LinkedIn Talent Solutions described diversity as “more complex than ever before” and noted that “very few companies have cracked the code on diversity.” Increasingly, the topic of diversity can engender negative reactions on social media. In marketing and media, depictions of diversity are often mishandled, sometimes in completely oblivious and disastrous ways. Why is the simple concept of inclusion considered to be an enigma? Why do people who profess to be tolerant still flinch at the topic and put up resistance, as if diversity is an opinion warranting a rebuttal?
During Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent grilling by the U.S. government, a number of representatives asked him about diversity issues. This prompted backlash on social media, not against Zuckerberg, but against the representatives for asking these questions. Many comments on social media dismissed these diversity concerns as off-topic. Interestingly, lawmakers asked other questions that deviated substantially from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, without eliciting the same level of objections.
At times, diversity conjures up the impression that there’s a minefield to be navigated. Several brands have failed spectacularly, due to their inability to reflect the society around them in an inclusive, mindful, and meaningful way. Heineken recently ran a commercial in which a bartender slides a Heineken Light beer past two black women and a black musician. The beverage finally reaches lighter-skinned people and the on-screen slogan states, “Sometimes, lighter is better.” This type of thoughtless ad is a regular occurrence.
Nivea, a German skin and body care company, ran an ad that stated “white is purity.” Another Nivea commercial claimed that their product can “visibly lighten” skin. It depicted an African woman applying body lotion and smiling as her skin gradually became whiter. Dove was responsible for a similar mistake. And Pepsi trivialized social protests by depicting Kendall Jenner somehow tapping into the spirit of activism by sharing a can of Pepsi with a police officer.
These specific examples of brand failures are egregious enough, but the conditions that routinely produce tone-deaf ads are outright confounding. If a company is trying to market its products to a society, and if it’s driven by profit, why would it remain disconnected from that society? Failing to understand and reflect the society directly impacts the company’s profit margins, meaning that the organizational structure and practices are fundamentally flawed.
Cliff Franklin is CEO of FUSE3 Advertising, an integrated marketing agency specializing in multicultural marketing. From his offices in St. Louis, Missouri, Franklin mentioned Toyota’s notorious gold tooth marketing materials as an example of a diversity ad gone disastrously wrong.
“Because there’s a lack of diversity on the client’s side, and there’s a lack of diversity on the ad agency’s side, you’re typically going to have these issues,” he told DMN. “And then we typically have to take a cue from whatever the general-market agency has already done, in order to have a synergistic campaign.”
When asked whether some of the recent ad controversies arose from clumsiness or a deliberate plan to generate controversy, Franklin attributed the problem to clumsiness and oversight, which could have been avoided by having decision-makers in the room with greater cultural sensitivities. Despite the jaw-dropping nature of these blunders, Franklin doesn’t believe that marketers are stirring the pot on purpose. “Most of these brands are very risk-averse. They’re very conservative in what they do,” he remarked. “I don’t think any VP of marketing would go to his boss and say, ‘We’re going to stir the pot and try to do some divisive work.’ I think it’s a function of, again, lack of diversity in those corporations.”
Franklin added that the controversial H&M ad in which a black boy can be seen wearing a hoodie marked “coolest monkey in the jungle” was “just terrible.” When advertisements go so far astray, it is difficult to understand the creative thought process that informed the decisions. Even if there isn’t diversity on the team, it seems like anyone should be able to see that situation on set and realize that something is not right. How is it that supposedly creative people can remain so oblivious?
“They’re poor marketers,” said Franklin, noting that there is no real certification or training for marketing and advertising. Providing an example, he described how someone could start out as an engineer in the automotive industry and, through a series of promotions, develop responsibility for corporate marketing efforts. “And all of a sudden, they’re a marketing person. And then they have to rely on research data and formulaic approaches in order to be informed about what to do. And/or they have to rely on the general-market agency who is supposedly the expert at the table but also lacks nuance and creativity. So again, you have a lack of diversity, but then you also have a lack of understanding and passion for marketing.”
Franklin noted that skilled marketers should be able to develop their insights on consumers without overly relying on focus groups. “You do get the young Caucasians that work in these organizations who actually think they understand multicultural audiences because they grew up with a little bit more diversity than people prior them, but at the same time, because they lack nuance, it’s hard to create good work,” he said.
Successful, inspired brands are able to develop campaigns that transcend age, race, and gender by presenting appealing creative material. “When you don’t have a key idea and you don’t stand for anything, you’re going to have mistakes like this,” explained Franklin.
The Trump administration has arguably given people a sense of social permission to be overtly negative about diversity. It is easy to forget that when Donald Trump initially made controversial statements about Mexican immigrants, NBCUniversal responded by ending its business relationship with him, while publicly declaring that its corporate values were built around “respect and dignity for all people.” With Trump now sitting in the White House, his controversial comments seem legitimized.
Major networks also seemed emboldened in their resistance to diversity. The “Roseanne” sitcom aired a joke suggesting that TV series with diverse casts are pushing some kind of heavy-handed equality agenda. This joke was dissected on social media, with actor, writer and producer Kelvin Yu calling the joke “an endorsement of dismissiveness and disregard.” It doesn’t stop there. When an African-American teenager gained social media fame after being accepted into 20 colleges, including top Ivy League institutions, Fox commentators decided to openly declare that he was “obnoxious” and ridiculous for “basically wait-listing another kid.”
“Some of it is just flat-out racism,” said Franklin. “Fox News and that whole echo chamber of conservative talk show hosts have been able to grow and get fame by appealing to the worst of white America. And so that is shock jock type of media. I don’t think that is prevalent in the ad industry per se, but it’s definitely prevalent among those who are trying to build audience.”
It is clear that diversity in marketing and media still provokes negativity and confusion. From a strictly business perspective, diversity mishaps also represent a needless financial loss. Franklin’s agency developed a primarily digital ad campaign for Hyundai that was aimed at African-Americans, but this pilot program didn’t move forward due to lack of funding and changes in Hyundai’s corporate leadership.
Why do big brands selling products with universal appeal somehow fail to target certain market segments in meaningful ways?
“When you don’t have diversity in the room, targeting multicultural consumers becomes an afterthought,” said Franklin. When marketing resources are divvied up, those consumers are either neglected or allocated a sliver of the available budget. An opportunity is lost in the process.
There are some positive signs of change. In 2014, Cheerios won support from the LGBT community after it aired an emotionally meaningful commercial featuring two dads. But these tactful examples are all too rare.
Cliff Franklin contended that many ads have failed to represent America by completely ignoring women, minorities, and commercially significant communities. “I think when you have to continue to talk about diversity in advertising, that shows you in itself that the industry is still one of the most racially polarizing industries probably outside of finance. Because it should be about real inclusion, and not diversity,” he said.