Diversity in advertising means more customers feel seen. When people feel seen they feel good, and making people feel good drives brand growth.
Making people feel good has long been known to be a driver of creative effectiveness. And making people feel seen in advertising is one way to do just that.
This is underlined in a new piece of research by System1, diversity media specialists DECA and ITV, which makes a significant contribution to the effectiveness case for diversity in advertising, suggesting brands that prominently feature diverse groups can benefit from a ‘diversity dividend’.
It’s not an invitation to marketers to go crazy with their targeting or first-party data and create different ad copy for each diversity group. Instead the authors suggest diversity in advertising unites people, with different groups responding emotionally to the same things in the same way – the only difference being an increase in the level and intensity of the emotional impact for certain groups versus the control group.
Tracking the moment-by-moment emotional responses to the ads reveals people’s “emotional journeys” are the same among the diversity segments and the general population.
Advertising featuring underrepresented groups works well beyond these groups, moving and uniting audiences of any kind. People tend to respond to the same things in stories and feel the same things regardless of the group they belong to.
So Renault’s ‘30 Years in the Making’, a film about two women meeting and falling in love, took both the general population and the LGBTQ+ sample on the same emotional rollercoaster of a journey. With Nike’s ‘Toughest Athletes’ that shows strong mothers training hard, everyone had the same emotional reaction – regardless of their race or if they were parents.
In a Cadbury Creme Egg ad, meanwhile, a gay kiss caused a spike in negative emotion among the general population, just as it did with the LGTBQ+ sample: it was the mix of Creme Egg goo and kissing that caused the reaction, not homophobia.
So in many ways the learning here is similar to what makes for great advertising overall: telling stories with truth, authenticity and in ways that cause an emotional reaction, makes people feel good and so helps create positive associations and lasting brand memories.
Importantly, this is not a green light for brands to be tokenistic in their portrayals of diverse groups. As ever with consumers, they can sniff out anything that looks like a box-ticking exercise. It’s not enough to simply opt for shallow representation or to show people from an underrepresented group in ways that feel inauthentic and diluted.
One black woman in the study outlined a crucial difference: “The advert just shows a black woman. I would say my community is represented by having a black person but perhaps not reflected”.
According to the study, something people in the diversity segments really noticed was when brands went beyond simple representation into a more authentic space, by reflecting the way clothes, home décor, mealtime behaviour and other cultural touches differ across groups. Authentic details matter.
But there’s a watch-out for brands looking to make an impact by addressing specific issues and making ads that are exceptionally hard-hitting. The research cautions against showing only stereotypes of struggle and pain among underrepresented groups.
The ads that perform best among the diversity segments don’t do this – they are mostly ads which tell great entertaining, moving or heart-warming stories. Being ‘entertaining not campaigning’ is found to be a more effective approach overall.
Clearly the findings of this research go way beyond ensuring diverse casting in a brand’s advertising. And while some advertisers and agencies are improving their track record when it comes to representation, many people in advertising have horror stories to share about times when diverse casting options were rejected by advertisers for clearly spurious reasons. Hopefully this research can help boost the industry’s efforts to consign these stories to the past.
This new data suggests inclusive advertising can do both what’s good for society and what’s good for business, pulling off a tricky balancing act that is frequently at the heart of criticisms of other progressive marketing approaches such as purpose-led advertising.
That’s something that has divided ad land, especially when it appears to be more about gaining the approval of peers and winning awards, at the expense of what actually matters to consumers and is genuinely distinctive for brands. That trend has caused complaints from some that brand purpose distracts from our industry’s core purpose – to sell.
But this data suggests there’s a way to both do the right thing for brands commercially, and the right thing for society. That authentically representing the diverse communities of consumers who buy our brands by telling authentic, emotional stories that resonate with them, is an approach that can help us sell a bit better to the majority and a lot better with a minority.
This report adds to the effectiveness case for diversity. It shows that increasing diversity in your advertising can give more customers the opportunity to feel seen, and that when people feel seen they feel good. And that matters because advertising works better when it evokes strong emotions and positive associations. Making people feel good drives brand growth.
One participant said: “If a brand wants my attention and business, they need to know how to speak to me. Yes, to speak to everyone – but me too, as part of everyone.”
It’s a reminder of something Nigel Bogle of BBH once said about how advertising works: “If you want to speak to everyone, speak to someone.”
Tom Roach is vice-president of brand planning at Jellyfish