While there was some improvement with the range of diversity in last year’s Christmas ads, given a few days of quiet reflection on the output, it is abundantly clear that, if we are going to avoid another white (-washed) Christmas this year, there is so much work to be done.
So, while I was on my 100th round of novelty Monopoly after a Caribbean-English Christmas dinner – macaroni cheese on our plates instead of cranberry sauce, Caribbean Christmas cake instead of figgy pudding – I was also ruminating on advice for agencies on how to change their approach to how we portray Christmas.
Growing up, it’s been rare to see an experience like mine, or one I’m familiar with, celebrated in mainstream media. Especially around Christmas.
For a time of year that’s so special to me, the typical white, middle-class, heteronormative festivities that we’re shown in popular culture, can be truly disheartening for a black woman such as myself.
A feeling utterly exacerbated when we got the results of some research we did, which showed that 54% of respondents (100 LGBTQIA+ people) said that "not seeing myself in advertising and film" was one of the more challenging parts of the festive period.
Just let that sink in. As an industry, our historical inability to portray anything other than a white Christmas is actively having a negative impact on more than half of the LGBTQIA+ community.
So why am I, and other underserved communities, so often left out of the festive cheer that’s celebrated on-screen?
When it comes to portraying Christmas, the ads usually tend to reflect the known experiences of those who create them – still, a "White Christmas", as Alpesh Patel eloquently put it in his brilliant Campaign piece – despite being a holiday that’s so widely celebrated by many, in many different ways.
But, all this aside, the dial is actually slowly shifting. Sainsbury’s choosing to place a black family at the centre of its Christmas ad in 2020 – bigoted complainers be damned – was a huge step towards adland portraying a not-so-white Christmas.
In the same year, Amazon also centred its seasonal story on a black family. We at The Diversity Standards Collective (DSC) were brought on board to advise on this one to make sure the ad portrayed the family in the most authentic way, avoiding commonly seen stereotypes such as broken black families living in poverty.
For this year’s Amazon Christmas ad, which featured a young, black woman suffering from anxiety, the DSC made sure Lucky Generals and Amazon had access to a selection of professional black women from across the US, Europe and the UK living with anxiety to advise on the entire process from ideation, through to casting, wardrobe choices, location and set dressing. This service just isn’t something that brands and agencies have had access to at this speed before.
As a darker-skinned, black woman with braids, and also as someone who lives with anxiety, hosting these sessions allowed me to feel seen in more ways than one.
More than that, having been involved throughout the process of Lucky Generals creating the campaign, it felt so gratifying both for me and the consultants working on this project to have a leading creative agency and one of the world’s biggest brands commit to reflecting our experiences on-screen.
Plus, the fact that we all ended up in tears after seeing the finished result (even without the Adele track) is a testament to just how impactful it is to have brands listening to the community, deeming the everyday lives of black women worthy of being showcased on a global stage.
It’s the most emotional reaction we’ve ever had to a session like this.
It’s refreshing, and promising, to have these big influential brands recognise the importance of telling diverse stories in a way that resonates and paves the way for more of a variety of stories to share the spotlight. And it’s crucial to acquire insights directly from these communities as part of the process.
What we want, is for a Christmas like mine and my community’s to become just as recognised and championed as the white, cis-gendered, able-bodied experiences we’ve become so used to seeing – and the same goes for every marginalised or underserved community that has something to celebrate at this time of year.
Feedback from a South Asian female consultant working on the TK Maxx Christmas ad reiterates this: “It’s such a pleasant surprise to see South Asian representation in this ad as central characters – this is how we change culture”.
The ads that win, are the ones that are uniquely creative; that tell impactful but human truths; that tug on the heartstrings of even the most Grinch-like of audiences.
It follows, then, that diversifying the face of Christmas and actually involving people from diverse communities in this process, opens up the floor to so many more beautiful stories to tell, and leads to more nuanced, resonant and compelling creative work as a result.
As planning for 2022’s bigger and better Christmas ads is already likely well under way, I would give these actionable tips to brands and agencies:
1. Before you start, go out and get to know other perspectives: ask people who have different lived experiences to yours, to share how they celebrate. Listen closely to those accounts, to unearth and tell stories in the most genuine way possible.
2. Put the lived experience into your idea. Remember that adding diverse faces at casting onwards is one piece of the puzzle. The key to getting it truly right, is to embed inclusive thinking right from the very beginning, and continue this throughout every stage of the process.
3. Check, check, and check again. Work collaboratively from the get-go with the people whose lived experiences you’re trying to tell, check in with them consistently that you’re on the right path, ask rather than assume.
Everything we need to de-homogenise seasonal advertising is at our fingertips – the first step can be as simple as just asking. In doing so, we can uncover so much more to tell, diverse scenarios that still encapsulate the joy of Christmas.
Siân Blackman is senior account manager at The Diversity Standards Collective