Advertising is both window and mirror
A view from Jo Arden

Advertising is both window and mirror

Some of the most successful campaigns can offer a reflection to some consumers while expanding the horizons of others.

Thirty years ago, educationalist Emily Style gave us two new frames to look through: the mirror and the window. 

Her ground-breaking essay, Curriculum as Window and Mirror, called for greater balance in the books primary age children are exposed to. Her thesis was simple: we need to present young people with mirrors that reflect and validate their own experience, while also presenting them with windows through which they can look upon and learn from the lives of others. 

The focus of that essay specifically reflected the experiences of children of colour and the lack of literary mirrors in the education system. In the intervening 30 years, the spirit of that essay has been expanded to include everyone who is marginalised or "othered" from the mainstream. It was a vital contribution to the conversation about how we shape people’s views of the world and their place in it.

Communications, too, gives us a chance to hold up a frame. On the one hand, we try to find an interesting truth, the mirror that reflects a relatable reality back to our customers. On the other, we create windows, portals that invite people to look beyond their own experience. The one we choose will inevitably depend on the product, the audience and the context. But both mirror and window are glazed with our own hand. They are, above all, reflections of our own analysis and interpretation. 

During the pandemic many brands were holding up a mirror to what was positioned as our collective experience. Empty streets, Zoom calls, people clapping, neighbourhoods coming together. It reflected the tedious monotony of life in lockdown for many (and the creative value of that is up for debate) but not the reality for all. The people who couldn’t stay home because doing so would mean losing a job: people in factories, on farms, in the less photo-friendly key working roles. We portrayed a world that tilted the mirror only as far as our limited imaginations allowed. 

There are huge swathes of the UK that rarely, if ever, have the mirror held to their face. Commercially, creatively, morally, that cannot be right.  

2020 supercharged thinking on diversity in the make-up of our businesses and in the work we make. It might be that the mirror and the window shed light on why, despite well-intentioned initiatives to eject stereotypes from advertising, what many of us see on our screens is nothing like what we see on our streets.

It’s ego-riddled nonsense to believe you don’t have to be the audience to truly get the audience. It is this kind of convenient protectionism that stagnates progress. The mirrors we make in ignorance are windows onto a world no-one recognises. 

Alongside our increasingly personalised relationships with brands, there are environments that demand mass appeal. It is here where opportunities are lost. When looking for average, an amalgamation, the middle-ground, we strip out what enrichens life. When we try to be relatable to everyone, we are relatable to no-one. As Emily Style said: “Diversity exists. It did not melt in the melting pot.” 

We sometimes hold up flawed mirrors when bigger, brighter windows are what we need. Our desire for a different view is why I’m a Celebrity Get Me out of Here was the highest-rated show of 2020 and why Gogglebox, literally a window into other people’s lives, is consistently in the top five most-watched programmes. 

Windows give us greater, rather than less, opportunity to connect. We are often more similar in our dreams than in our realities. We can create work that shows a world refracted, where our imagination unfolds. There have been some beautiful examples this year of brands throwing open the shades onto new vistas: B&Q’s "We will grow again", McCain's "The little moments", Guinness' "Welcome back" and Diet Coke "Just because" are just a handful that spring to mind. They gives us the chance to look at things a different way. 

But in comms, as in literature, we need not make a binary choice. We can make work that embraces both. We can hold a mirror to the few and, in doing so, give a new view to the many. McCain and Family Fund do just that with integrity and intent. They show life as millions of families, those with disabled or seriously ill children, will recognise it. For millions more, it’s an ad that connects without being faithful to our own experience. It is one of a very few ads that target mass but show a group considered niche; they also include Guinness’ "The Compton cowboys", Starbucks' "What’s your name", Maltesers' "Look on the light side of disability" and perhaps a handful more. 

This is not about tokenism, nor is it about purpose. It’s about the huge opportunity we have to let in some new light, by changing how our industry is reflected and how, in turn, we reflect the world.

Jo Arden is chief strategy officer at Publicis.Poke