Mars marketing chief calls on industry to swallow fear of offending to advance diversity

Diversity should not be seen as the answer to the challenges facing advertisers, instead of a problem to be solved, urged Michele Oliver, UK vice-president of marketing at Mars Chocolate.

Speaking at the Diversity in Marketing & Advertising Summit in London today, Oliver talked about the creation of last summer’s Maltesers campaign that featured a series of disabled protagonists sharing funny and embarrassing anecdotes.

The justification for running a campaign like this, Oliver argued, was in its commercial as much as its social impact. It pushed up sales of the chocolate by 8.1% while the ads were on air, she said, compared to a target of 4%. And it helped brand affinity grow 20%, compared to a 10% goal.

Despite the outcome, Oliver admitted she had been extremely nervous about portraying disabled people in this way.

"When you go into this space, it’s uncomfortable, it’s awkward," she said. "Casting conversations are awkward – how do you talk about disability? I don’t want to get the words wrong, I don’t want to cause offence – we’re so British. The temptation is, I just won’t go there."

For marketers to get past this stage, they had to trust that their intentions were good, Oliver argued – but also be prepared for a negative response from some. Alongside its acclaim, the Maltesers campaign was among the most complained about to the Advertising Standards Authority last year.

Calling diversity "the mother of creativity", Oliver said brands and agencies should start thinking about it as a tool to generate fresh ideas and new approaches, rather than something they simply need to bear in mind.

"We all know that if you’re trying to come up with an innovative idea, having a lot of people that think the same is not going to solve the problem," she said. "I have nothing against white men – they are part of the future of advertising, they’re just not the whole of it."

Courage to keep going

Oliver was later joined on stage by a panel consisting of Cilla Snowball, group chairman and chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which created the Maltesers campaign; Samantha Renke, an actress and disability campaigner who appeared in one of the ads, and Steve Lacey, managing director of insight and strategic planning consultancy SLS.

Snowball reiterated Oliver’s point that when it comes to portraying disability in ads, "the reason people aren’t doing it is out of the fear of getting it wrong."

The answer was to power through any embarrassment and discomfort, she said: "It was only when we engaged with the audience and started talking about awkward moments with disabled people that we developed the confidence to do the work."

She added that AMV BBDO have "got the taste for it now, we’re falling over ourselves with ideas, we’ve got the courage to keep going."

Renke shared some of the harassment she had received since appearing in the Maltesers ad – but stressed that it had been tremendous for her career in terms of opening doors, and that since becoming recognised by the public, she felt less defined by her disability. "Now I’m not that girl in the wheelchair with brittle bones, I’m on telly," she said.

The sense of familiarity with disabled people that ads could offer was important, said Renke – who compared it to her former career as a teacher. "When I was a school teacher, people assumed that the kids would give me aggro. But actually because their teacher was disabled, their attitude towards their peers changed."

Lacey, who is also disabled, argued that advertising had for too long been thought of as "a mirror to society – but it should be about changing, and clients need to get braver."

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).