Whitewash in ad land leads to a yawning lack of colour
Originally written on November 13, 2015. Updated and published October 11, 2017.
I could not believe this article (http://mumbrella.com.au/leo-burnett-sydney-hires-five-senior-creatives-329481) when I read it today, on a couple of levels. Firstly, even though I understand that the advertising agency in question feels that they have hired on merit, and this may well be true, the way they have gone about this shows either wilful blindness to modern community attitudes, or wilful arrogance in relation to those attitudes.
I don’t actually know which of these two is worse. I understand that not everyone holds pro-feminist or pro-diversity attitudes. This saddens me, but I believe people should be allowed to hold attitudes that differ from mine.
Of course, this agency is far from the only advertising firm that acts and/or hires in the same way. But it is the one stupid enough to proudly display their arrogance in public. For an advertising firm (ostensibly the masters of messaging) to put up a photo like this, makes me wonder about their professionalism. Even if you actually believe that white men are the only ones “good enough” to be advertising creatives, then don’t message that to the world at large.
If they truly did not anticipate the reaction they have received today, then quite frankly, they are incompetent. Australia has had equal opportunity laws since the 1980’s, and similar laws and campaigns around diversity for almost as long. As such, especially now that the world has gone digital, such errors can go around the world in seconds. Did no-one stop to think “Hey, our audience is around 50% female, and about half of the Australian population (especially in the cities) was either born overseas, or their parents were. If we show five white guys as our new hires, what is the majority of the public going to think of us”? It appears not.
That leaves us with option two – wilful arrogance. This is maybe the adult version of what happened a few weeks ago, when a private school student posted offensive Facebook remarks about students from public schools (http://www.mamamia.com.au/lifestyle/xavier-public-school-post/). The difference is, you expect that sort of stupidity from schoolboys full of hormones. But does it suggest that at least some of the students going to private schools continue to go through life without gaining any wider understanding of society? Could it be that advertising represents one of the last bastions of the white male old-school-tie club?
The other reason I believe it is more likely to be arrogance comes from my own maturation in such issues. I am married to a woman born overseas, and of course living with her has opened my eyes, and I am ashamed to admit I didn’t even notice such issues beforehand. But now, this type of thing annoys me more than it does her.
Every day, I catch the bus to work with an increasingly diverse group of people. If I watch mainstream Australian TV, though, with the odd exception, you’d think it was still the 1950’s, both in terms of the ads and the shows themselves; http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/why-are-australian-ads-so-white-20150325-1m7bi3.html
I am not sure what is going on with the TV programs, but I’ve heard arguments that because the mass market is disappearing, the TV stations are trying to appeal to the largest markets left. Ironically, however, it appears that the prized A-B demographic advertisers want to attract just don’t watch mainstream TV, either because they are too busy running businesses, or using their leisure time in more productive ways. According to this line of argument, what’s left is the C-D demographic, who tend to skew older, and to be more conservative and less educated. And if you want to appeal to a white-bread audience, you show stuff that these people are comfortable with; either about the good old days, or at the very least, you show social situations where none of the cultural issues connected to diversity show up. After all, TV is not there to make people think…heaven forbid!
I don’t like this argument, but in purely economicterms I can see it makes some level of sense. Maybe it can be extended to the advertising industry, but I give the agencies far less leeway. They have budgets, and don’t need to stick to scripts for months – they just have to find a way to appeal to the broadest audience possible. So why don’t they do so?
The tragedy of this is that with a bit of courage, everyone could benefit. The 50% of customers who currently don’t relate to any of the ads could suddenly discover new products and services, because the TV ads made them feel included and important. The companies selling the products might suddenly find that their sales figures get a boost, and the ad agencies who led the way could enjoy being considered the leaders in the field.
Instead, these firms don’t realise how much damage they are doing to themselves. In (essentially) saying that the advertising industry is not open to anyone, from any background, but only to white men from the right schools and suburbs, they lose many of the most talented and creative graduates to other industries – and to other countries. As is happening now, their industry will shrink, as the action itself will move overseas, and they will become the kings of a shrinking island, yelling more and more loudly about how important they are.
And customers will do what customers always do when faced with sellers not in line with their values; pay lip service when they need to, disengage and tune out whenever they can, and flood to any new provider who values their beliefs and self-respect.
Update April 2016: I have just found this video by the amazing Cindy Gallop. She gives the advertising industry the massive serve that it deserves. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4g_Utz_gCI