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Do the Right Thing: Why Companies must use people of color in advertising and how to do it well.

Effective advertising truly connects with its desired audience. It isn’t just seen, heard, or read—it connects with its audience on a meaningful level. Promoting individuals that look like your intended audience connects with them. It’s simple psychology: people relate to people that look like themselves.

Despite that simplicity, marketing trends have lagged behind reality. In the US, demographics have shifted dramatically over the past sixty-four years: while three-quarters of baby boomers are white, only half of millennials are, making the millennial generation the most diverse in the country’s history. A diverse population is a diverse audience and a diverse audience demands diversity in marketing materials. People of color want to see other people of color represented in the marketing aimed at them.

Marketers embraced showing people with tattoos where they never would have twenty years ago because it’s representative of reality: as of 2014, 40% of American households include someone with a tattoo. Similarly, they must embrace showing people of color. In the later arena, it’s long overdue.

Continuing to market towards a single demographic is not only ignorant, it’s tone deaf. It fails to recognize the wants and needs of minorities who will soon be the majority and it fails to promote racial acceptance. It took the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent mass sharing of what is in effect the world’s most viewed snuff film to shock some brands out of the past and into action. The Aunt Jemima brand and logo, based on a racially insensitive enslavement archetype, were created in 1889, but weren’t canceled by the Quaker Oats Company (a subsidiary of PepsiCo) until after Floyd’s death during the subsequent racial justice movement in June of this year.

Band-Aid Brand only announced the “launch of a new range of bandages that ring truer to all skin tones” less than a week earlier.

Much like offering different products in a bandage line speaks to multiple audiences, including people of color in companies’ marketing campaigns does the same. It also helps broaden perception amongst all audiences that people of color can, do, and should fill these roles. It’s a form of progressive action that promotes all people as equals. Roger Ramirez, Head of Account Management at marketing agency Moustache, sums it up: “Traditional assignments … in advertising do something detrimental to society—and, more importantly, to our youth. They create predetermined conceptions about certain lifestyles and societal roles.” Brands that

choose to promote people of color in less traditional roles are acting progressively, morally, and likely creating inherently deep connections with more nuanced audiences by doing so.

As an example, Nike’s advertising campaigns are diverse, yet featuring people of color in athletic roles isn’t exactly groundbreaking. Breaking ground would be Pfeizer choosing to use more people of color to portray doctors and nurses in their advertising campaigns, or American Airlines portraying more of their pilots as people of color versus as flight attendants.

It’s fiscal and moral responsibility.

Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Businesses grow revenue by penetrating new markets. Instead of looking for new markets abroad, corporations big and small can more easily find new markets simply by connecting with new populations at home.

George Floyd’s murder took the country and the world by storm. It sparked more conversations, changes, and promises to promote racial equality than any other single event in recent history and it galvanized companies into action. But momentum can fade, and companies need to make meaningful internal changes to foster sustained, discernible external results.

The easiest meaningful internal change is to alter their workforce’s makeup. From 1978 to 2014 the percentage of the advertising industry’s workforce made of Black and Hispanic workers only increased from 5.0 percent to 5.8 percent. It’s an insignificant bump when compared to the massive demographic shift that’s happened throughout the same time period. Employing people of all backgrounds generates better ideas born from a diversity of thought and experiences. Ensuring diversity in your workforce ensures that your company is more agile and adapts to changing trends faster.

Diverse workforces are not only more likely to produce work appropriate to diverse audiences, they’re more successful. A 2018 report by the Association of National Advertisers and the Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing highlights research from McKinsey that demonstrates as much. In A Diversity Report for the Advertising / Marketing Industry, the ANA and AIMM show that there’s a direct correlation between leadership diversity at large companies and profitability. “Companies in the top quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33 percent more likely to have industry-leading profitability.”

It makes perfect sense. A breadth of thought and experience delivers more diverse ideas and ways of thinking which can connect with greater audiences. Concurrently, increased diversity amongst those in leadership and decision-making positions leads to a greater acceptance of those ideas and directly leads to more success. At the same time, diverse leaders are more likely to recognize the actual makeup of their audience and embrace changes that will connect with customers through meaningful representation.

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