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Authentic Diversity Representation: Are Advertisers Trying Too Hard, Or Not Hard Enough?

Siena discusses representation in ads and the advertising industry

Tesco’s most recent ad “Alia’s ‘Worth The Wait’ Samosas” from their Food Love Stories series had overall positive feedback for their efforts of diversity representation – ‘efforts’ being the key word here.

Despite the director general of the IPA finding that “our concerted collective efforts to improve diversity and inclusivity within our industry are beginning to pay off”, presence and visibility are still not where they need to be.

Creative Moment found that 71% of people said Black people are represented, but only 56% of those identify as black. This figure is lower for South Asians: 53% of people saw this community represented, with only 29% of South Asians themselves feeling well-represented. Diversity means nothing without authentic portrayals of culture, and the lack of authenticity can cause offence to whole communities.

In the sea of positive comments online about the Tesco ad saying “at least they’re trying”, we need to ask if advertisers are trying too hard, or not hard enough.

Arif Miah, a creative strategy director in the industry, shares his opinion as a young British Muslim in an article with Campaign Magazine. To summarise the essence of his point: it’s like they’ve googled Muslim culture, copy and pasted it and stickered Tesco on the front.

In terms of not trying hard enough, Miah finds indiscretions with the wearing (or rather lack of) the hijab, name pronunciations, eating times, moon movements, and Eid being announced on the radio. It’s an unreal portrayal of Eid.

A bigger issue is that this is the year 2023, and there’s not a phone in sight. Perhaps great parenting, perhaps a very happy family who love to hang out together, screen-free. But details like this would pinpoint the reality of the times we are in. This is not a British Muslim family celebrating Eid in 2023, this is just a Muslim family that shopped at Tesco.

Miah has his own suggestions that Tesco could have addressed the latest hijab trends or TikTok craze for homemade pistachio milk cake which accelerated during Ramadan. But instead, it’s like they’ve used “caricatures of British Muslim life but far from the dynamic realities” (Miah), making reference to TV such as East is East, Goodness Gracious Me, and Citizen Khan.

Tesco’s inability to understand that religion evolves with the times is most definitely because there’s a lack of representation within the ad industry itself. This is something that’s trying to be changed proactively by agencies and also organisations such as Brixton Finishing School (which I was so lucky to attend). Currently, agencies are relying solely on their diversity consultants and seeing this as a satisfactory effort.

Ande Martin writes in Creative Moment that “taking a course is great, but true diversity in advertising comes from diverse creative teams”. Empathy can go a long way, but it’s not the same as authentic, first-hand insight.

In terms of trying too hard, The Telegraph reckons that “‘Woke’ advertisers risk becoming ‘out of touch’ with the British public”. An article in The Daily Mail reiterates this with the statistics that 37% of 1000 UK ads featured black people, but in reality that group only make up 3% of the population. This is not just an issue with race, as there are opinions that women are also being overrepresented.

Some minority groups are very happy with their portrayal on British ads at the moment, for example the LGBTQIA+ community, and increased representation of disabilities too – just check out the TFL tube posters, or the Lucy Edwards Pantene ad. But many groups, specifically Asian groups, need to be considered more.

So let’s talk about adverts done well.

Adam&Eve DDB, one of the best agencies in business, created ‘Skatergirl’, an ad for Virgin Media showcasing the power of connectivity. It received praise for not only its positive message, but for the authentic portrayal of a young muslim girl, defying gender and racial stereotypes.

The protagonist of the ad, Aamira, is played by Zahirah who is part of a London group called ‘Melanin Skate Gals & Pals’. This group is a community for the LGBTQIA+ and BPOC, amplifying their voices. By using a real group with real people, the campaign was a success in terms of high CTR and conversations surrounding it. The skate scene was the perfect metaphor to communicate “We’re better, together”, and it was true to the times of virtual relationships and making connections online.

Another successful Adam&Eve DDB advert is McCain’s ‘We are Family’. They worked from the insight that half of British people don’t think popular culture is reflective of real modern families, and 84% of consumers were unable to recall any ad that featured a family that looked like theirs for over six months.

And this is what Tesco missed out on. People want to see families that look like theirs.

One day, there will be a lot less older white male creative directors, and it won’t feel like an episode of Mad Men anymore. Until then, talent teams need to stop just hiring ‘token’ minority groups, and focus on authenticity instead.

Ask yourselves: what can our multicultural country offer when we come together, as opposed to just creating a spectrum of disconnected skin tones on the screen. Look to hire a greater diversity of backgrounds, and value people for their skills and culture, not just colour.

And most importantly, be authentic.



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