Dangerous lack of diversity in ads fails to reflect society and undermines trust
A view from Bobi Carley

Dangerous lack of diversity in ads fails to reflect society and undermines trust

There is still a worrying gap between advertisers' belief in the importance of diversity and the range of diverse people in their ads.

Our industry has talked a lot about trust in recent times. The gulf between advertisers and audiences when it comes to consumers believing what they’re told, how often they want to see and hear it (and in what places) and having faith in brands’ values and behaviour, is well documented.

It’s a trust crisis – one that marketers are determined to address. But the truth is that there is another crisis that goes alongside it, and both crises feed in to one another. As we all know, that is the crisis in diversity and representation in advertising, which has been brought into such stark relief over the past few months.

At ISBA, we have long known that this is an urgent priority for our industry. I feel very privileged to chair our Diversity and Inclusion Working Group. My colleagues and I are of one view: that tackling the issue of underrepresentation and lack of diversity in advertising is simply non-negotiable.  

We are also of the strong opinion that it is past time we made progress on this. As an industry, we need to stop talking about it and start doing it. There are real stars in the sector who are doing just that – such as our partners Creative Equals and the Conscious Advertising Network, to name just two that are driving actionable change. 

But in order for us to identify where we need to get to, we must first take stock of where we are. That was the aim of a panel webinar, which we hosted in September, where we launched the early findings of Diversity and Inclusion Tracking research carried out by Opinium and funded by the Direct Line Group.

The headline finding is stark. Respondents were asked two key questions: first of all, how far did they agree with the statement that it is important for different groups in society to be well represented in advertising; and then, did they agree that TV ads reflect modern British society?

Of the respondents, 68% said that diversity in ads was important. But just 42% agreed that TV ads demonstrated that diversity.

Further, when asked their level of agreement with a follow-up statement that "TV adverts do a good job of representing all groups within British society", only 36% of respondents agreed – a fall from 42% who agreed with the same statement as short a time ago as March.

Whether this fall is attributable to the increased exposure to ads that has come with the Covid-19 pandemic and/or the heightened appreciation of the importance of the issue in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, the lesson is clear. While people overwhelmingly feel that equality and diversity are important for advertising, they just as overwhelmingly feel that we are falling down on the job.

The research also shows that younger viewers feel particularly strongly that diversity matters. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, 80% say that it is important for different groups to be well represented, as do 75% of 25- to 34-year-olds.

With three teenage daughters myself, I am constantly reminded that this is indeed a generational challenge. My 14-year-old asked me recently why Mothercare is so-called – if it sells things for babies, surely it should be called Parentcare?

For her generation, the answers to questions like this are obvious. By default, she and her peers will accept nothing less than equality.

So, for the sake of the longevity of our own industry, and to win – and maintain – the trust of younger consumers, we absolutely have to take the opportunity to make this a change moment. 

That would be true even if it were not the case that, first and foremost, better representing our diverse population is quite simply the moral and right thing to do.

It is our hope that the tracking research we have launched – which will be repeated every six months – will help brands in different sectors navigate this challenge, and understand their own position. Respondents seem to believe that FMCG advertisers are slightly ahead of the curve and are doing better on diversity, while sectors such as finance, automotive, and travel have further to go. 

In each case, we want to help brands to know their audience so that they can be authentic and true to the values we know they hold. We also want to provide our members with concrete advice on how they can take action to educate internally, clear hurdles and overcome obstacles to greater diversity among their own ranks and in their output – so, alongside Flock, we will be publishing a guide on this in the weeks to come.

The overarching message from this research is simple. Until people have confidence that ads look, sound and feel like them, and that we reflect the society in which we operate, we will only be feeding the dangerous lack of trust people feel in us.

If brands are going to win back the public’s support, then it’s crucial that they take a lead in driving positive societal change. Tackling these twin crises in trust and diversity is fundamental if we want the licence to continue to operate. Frankly, the clock is ticking.

Bobi Carley is head of TV & Video, Diversity & Inclusion Working Group Chair, ISBA