Diversity in Advertising: Social Media Demands that Brands Pay Attention
Associate Director, Social Media
Diversity and inclusiveness have become major issues in the advertising industry in recent years, both for audiences and within its own ranks. eMarketer’s Alison McCarthy spoke to God-is Rivera, associate director of social media at digital marketing and advertising agency VML, about how brands approach diversity and how social media can support that.
eMarketer: Do you find that brands are increasingly looking to reflect diversity in their messaging, or is it generally an afterthought?
Rivera: I’ve been working in marketing for about a decade, and in that timespan there has been a major shift in how brands are approaching diversity. I think they’re realizing that they need to reflect and reach all of their customers, not just some of them—though there is still a lot of work to be done.
eMarketer: How has social media influenced the conversation around diversity in media, advertising and marketing?
Rivera: The fact that social media allows people to connect with others from around the world, from different perspectives, different ethnicities and different sexual orientations has demanded that the industry be more aware of diversity and how audiences perceive messages. It has also given brands the opportunity to take a stand and lead a dialogue, which can be really powerful.
“Customers realize that inclusive ads can be risky and will go far to support brands that share similar values.”
eMarketer: Campaigns such as these have often spurred negative backlash by a small but vocal minority on social media. Do you think that brands are as still as concerned with negative reactions as they might have been a few years ago?
Rivera: Brands are always concerned about negative reactions, even if those reactions might seem unreasonable. It’s always smart to be armed with a real-time response plan in place. Having said that, these types of campaigns usually work in the favor of brands that are genuine and authentic in their values. Customers realize that inclusive ads can be risky and will go far to support brands that share similar values.
eMarketer: How does VML approach issues of diversity and inclusiveness when working with clients?
Rivera: We really put in the work to understand markets and audiences. If we find a new customer segment that might be receptive to one of our clients, we’ll bring in partners to help us learn about them, talk to them directly through focus groups, reach out to somebody from that community or get insight from our own employees. Also, VML is very aware of the fact that the strategic and creative teams need to reflect the work being done. Clients are increasingly expecting us to bring in diverse teams to work on campaigns, so that’s top of mind for us.
eMarketer: What are some tactics that brands have successfully used to embrace diversity in their messaging?
Rivera: Brand messaging that reflects and appeals to families that look real—whether that means including adopted children, same-sex parents, interracial siblings or stepchildren—can be really powerful. Brands that push the limits in how they reflect the roles of women and mothers can be extremely effective.
“I’ve also seen brands be opportunistic, such as when they insincerely use slang terms or vernacular that have come out of the black community.”
Mom can now be the breadwinner, or be a single parent by choice. A woman of color can be a top executive. The traditional “Leave It to Beaver” type of family no longer exists, and brands are starting to portray that.
eMarketer: What are some examples of what brands have done wrong when trying to reflect diversity in their messaging?
Rivera: I’ve noticed that when a brand totally misses the mark on something that has to do with ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, it’s often because no one from that particular viewpoint was included in the process. The messaging will often lack certain nuances and references, or may even come off as offensive.
I’ve also seen brands be opportunistic, such as when they insincerely use slang terms or vernacular that have come out of the black community. You often can tell that they aren’t taking the time to understand the actual people and the culture behind it.
eMarketer: Many people agree that the advertising industry is in a state of crisis when it comes to diversity within its own leadership positions. What needs to be done to improve this?
Rivera: The industry needs to start by looking at talent and recruitment. There is obviously something going on in the pipeline that’s not bringing diverse talent into the industry. Once employees are hired, we need to make sure that they want to stay in the industry and feel welcomed and supported.
“More can be done to show people from different backgrounds that there is a place for them in advertising.”
Second, more can be done to show people from different backgrounds that there is a place for them in advertising. That means reaching out to middle school and high school students, especially from underserved communities where they are less likely to be exposed to people with backgrounds in advertising or marketing. You’ve got to intercept these kids when they’re still dreaming about what they want to do in life.
eMarketer: What is VML doing to address issues of diversity and inclusion within its own organization?
Rivera: VML will be the first to say that the company and the larger industry has a lot of work to do. We are starting to focus heavily on diversity in our recruitment efforts. We’ve partnered with the American Association of Advertising Industries (4As) and are talking to outside partners to help with this. We realize that this needs to be an ongoing effort.
We’ve starting to partner with high schools to help kids see that there are opportunities in advertising and marketing as well. VML is also considering creating an internal panel with employees to galvanize a grassroots, companywide effort to increase diversity and inclusion, which is an initiative I’m proud to be a part of.