‘We are very, very lazy’: getting to grips with advertising’s class bias

A panel at Effie’s UK Leadership Summit shared their thoughts on making the ad industry truly representative of society.

Effie summit: Dhunna, Lacey, Maguire, Nairn and Kemp
Effie summit: Dhunna, Lacey, Maguire, Nairn and Kemp

Advertising is failing to effectively recruit and represent people from working-class backgrounds, thanks to an obsession with the AB socio-economic groups, failed research models and sheer laziness, a panel of industry leaders argued last week (7 October) at Effie’s UK Leadership Summit.

“Advertising is really, really bad – we’re our own echo chamber and that echo chamber is well spoken, and for well spoken, we read being intelligent,” Vicki Maguire, chief creative officer at Havas London, said. 

“What we do is we borrow from lazy stereotypes. When you're writing an ad for example, there's some lazy stereotyping around accents – always put a Scottish voice on a bank ad because [the stereotype says] they're really tight. If you want somebody to be a little bit thick, West Country accents. If you want to signify dirty-handed working class, stick a Brummie in it.”

Maguire added that based on scripts she saw, she hoped this problem was being addressed, but added: “we are very, very lazy, and we think that we're at the cutting edge of culture, and that we inform it. We're not – we're at the back end of the pantomime horse, and we perpetuate it.”

Maguire was joined by Lucky Generals founding partner Andy Nairn, The Unmistakables founder and chief executive Asad Dhunna, and Steven Lacey, founder of The Outsiders, in a session hosted by Nicola Kemp, editorial director at Creativebrief. 

Nairn said that while accent is not “exactly synonymous with class… it's a pretty good mark. It's one of the first immediate judgments you can make… people in Britain are very good at sort of pigeonholing: I get what background you're from, and then they make a leap quite often into the level of intelligence.”

He said that research had shown such biases were most common in people from south east England – “from managerial classes. Well, that's the people who are doing interviews in ad agencies. So at a stroke, they're wiping out people who have exactly the right amount of intelligence, but come from a slightly different background.”

The same phenomenon leads to people who do make it into the industry, Nairn added, being “marked down or patronised – 'Yeah, they're really bright, but they're not a great presenter. I wouldn't put them in front of clients or you can't you can barely understand a word they’re saying.'

“People just being limited at every station, [from] interview through their progress through this industry, and then they just get wasted and lost to our industry and do one of the many other cool things that they could be doing in life.”

When considering people from working-class backgrounds, Lacey said: “Often they come with some kind of dimensions: it's kind of fear – oh, they’re far right; it's kind of contempt – they vote for Brexit. We don't we be near them when we're on holiday… or they buy the shit brands.”

Advertising “worships at the altar of AB”, Lacey added, referring to households with at least one person in a professional or managerial role in the ABC1C2DE socio-economic model.

“We absolutely love AB. And that's a real big implication, because if you talk about prototypicalities – if I said to you, 'think of a bird', you think of something that flies, you don't think of a penguin – the proto-typicalities of an ABC1 is a white guy, kids in private school, lives in Richmond, goes to the golf club… or a Hampstead mum. It's not someone from a working-class background; it's not even someone from a diverse background.”

This was one reason why “the model and process of research [in advertising] is broken”, Dhunna argued. “I see it all the time where people talk about ‘them over there’. I sit there and go: 'Hang on, I'm Asian. Maybe I shouldn't be "them over there".' There are people in this industry who come from different backgrounds but it's almost like we don't want to celebrate that.”

He noted that there had been “progress around diversity and inclusion” in advertising – “in part because marketers love a trend” – but argued the industry was not willing to consider this on all relevant levels.

“We hear more and more people saying we need diverse casting, we need a diverse ad,” he said. “Does that mean we need a non-white ad, or does that mean that we actually need to rethink what we're showing? Are we showing mainstream Britain?”

Discussing his own family, Dhunna noted that while his father has a professional background, “he came from working-class India, where the class system is so ingrained – it’s a slightly British import that we got and got exacerbated. So I think a lot of that blends together and people go, 'well, I just don't know where to start and it's too awkward, and therefore I won't talk about it', and we'll move on.”

All these structural problems are taking a toll on the work the ad industry produces and its attitude to different kinds of marketing, the panel agreed.

Mentioning work for brands such as Amazon, Asda and KFC, Lacey said such campaigns “really connect with a kind of fantasy”, which is what people connect with when they’re struggling in the present and “the future looks really bleak”.

Using an analogy from the English Civil War, of the Cavaliers and Roundheads, he added: “I think a lot of advertising’s going into the world of Roundheads [who had a puritan attitude], it's very serious. Most of the audiences, and not just working-class audiences, most of the audiences want a bit of light during dark times.”

The consequences of not tackling this would be severe for both the industry and society, Maguire warned.

“We've got to make advertising that is entertaining, and in touch with the people that we're talking to, because if we don't, and they skip it – or even worse, they pay to avoid us, which is an option now – then the people that are left that don't want to or can't pay to avoid us, our advertising becomes a tax on the poor. So we owe it to the people that watch to be entertaining and relevant and current.”

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