As I scrolled through the presentation, giving it a once-over before I shared it with our client, I let out a small “aww” at the stock images of a dozen or so adorable children – some smiling, some laughing, some contorting their faces into funny expressions. Doting moms and stoic but proud dads were in other images as well, and as I got to the last page of about twenty, my “aww” turned into a sigh. I was going to have to do my second job today. This part of my job isn’t on any job description, it isn’t something I reference on my LinkedIn profile, and I’ve never been explicitly asked to do it, but it is still my job nonetheless. After I quickly reviewed the images again to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and that I had indeed just looked at twenty pages of various shades of whites, I began about my work of ensuring that an accurate cross-section of America’s public is represented in our work.
According to the Census Bureau, about 63% of Americans are white, which means that almost 4 out of 10 Americans are not. Yet the advertising industry consistently delivers messaging intended for all, but not representative of all. When we go even further, and consider the number of advertising messages we receive that may include images of people of color, but obviously hasn’t considered the perspectives of those people (e.g. Pepsi’s controversial ad featuring Kendall Jenner), it’s clear that my colleagues and I have a long way to go.
Consumers are so used to seeing images of white people in advertising, that they are often confused when something else is presented to them. A few months ago, a popular clothing company prominently featured a black father and son in matching pajamas on their Facebook feed and a consumer commented, “Is it Black History Month?” Regardless of whether the commenter genuinely was confused by the presence of a black person in an advertisement or not, American society often presents non-white media as alternative or “other”, quite literally placing brown skin in the margins to check off an unspoken diversity checklist. It can appear jarring when Asian, Black or Latino people are front and center in a television commercial, magazine ad, or social media campaign when their otherness isn’t called out.
This isn’t to say that advertisers aren’t eager to reach their multicultural and many-hued audiences. Most large consumer brands like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Disney and others have entire divisions committed to marketing their products to their Black, Latino, and Asian consumers. However, this content often runs exclusively in spaces reserved for minorities, such as the channel BET, an Essence magazine, or as a preview to a film or TV show featuring predominantly characters of color (e.g. the tv show Fresh Off The Boat or the film Girls Trip.)
One strategy for improving representation in the advertisements consumed by the American public is to ensure the advertising industry is reflective of the consumers we hope to entice with our work. According to statistics provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor, Black Americans made up less than 6% of the marketing and advertising industry in 2014, despite making up 13% of the population. Latinos/Hispanics represent less than 10% of the marketing/advertising industry, despite being roughly 18% of the population. (It is heartening to see that Asians represent almost 11% of the advertising industry and about 6% of the population overall.)
Creating a more inclusive workplace in our industry isn’t charity or philanthropic work; it improves the odds that our work will be effective with consumers of every hue. Ad agencies and marketing departments serve their clients (and their own bottom lines) when they hire more people of color. Changes in hiring and an increased recruitment of minorities are important long-term strategies.
In the short term, however, people of color in advertising and marketing have committed to our silent second job; advocating for inclusion. We play a careful dance of picking our battles, smiling obsessively, couching our criticism in soft language and praise, and sending carefully worded emails (in this order: type sentence, delete sentence, chew on pen, reword sentence, forward to fellow brown advertising friend for review, reword again, send email, then chew fingernail, hoping no one is rolling their eyes as you request a cherub Asian smiling baby be included).
In an idyllic world, this “second job” would be a responsibility all advertisers and marketers shoulder, but in reality, it is something most don’t think about. It isn’t the kind of work guaranteed to improve your performance review, but it is the necessary work that minorities do in service to our employers, our clients and most importantly all consumers.
Note: It is also important to note in addition to a lack of demand for people of color in mainstream advertising creative, there is a lack of supply. I encourage you to visit any of several stock imagery sites and do a search for beautiful brides, smiling lawyers, or any people-related search term. You will likely find a huge disparity. I just searched a major site and got 10,641 images for “white child on a bike” and 414 images for “Latino child on a bike.” My search for “beautiful brides” yielded 0 brides of color on the first page of 100. I’m not the first one to notice this lack of supply; www.getcolorstock.com and other sites are committed to providing stock imagery of people of color doing the same things that whites do (everyone eats salads!)