As multiple panels at this year’s Cannes Lions demonstrate, brands can no longer pay lip service to the issues of intersectionality and inclusivity. Consumers are demanding authenticity and social good from brands, who are unveiling campaigns that go beyond marketing slogans.
The harness is screwed down and the earphones are flipped over to complete the sense of immersion. Suddenly you’re transported. After a blinking a few times to clear the haze, you’re experiencing the world through a completely different set of eyes—and there, as plain as day, are all the subtle sneers, uncomfortable shuffles and off-putting glances that come with the territory when you’re a young person of color living in modern America.
As an activation, P&G’s ‘THE LOOK’ is certainly thought-provoking. Produced in partnership with ground-breaking, socially aware creative collective Saturday, the film is a follow up the Grand Prix-winning ‘The Talk’ and is a powerful comment on the issue of racial bias. On display at Cannes’ Health Lions, it also fits into a broader trend that is shaping marketing dialogue in 2019. The message: brands not only have to do good, but they also have to mean it.
More and more audiences are demanding brands and media platforms make a more sophisticated argument than simply saying they are for or against something. So far, two days in, panel after panel has talked about the need for credibility and authenticity over virtue signaling and gimmicky activism.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that diversity isn’t important—it’s something that your audience really does cares about,” Stitch Fix CMO Deirdre Findlay told a panel on Monday. And there is data to back them up.
A later panel showed off a new study from Karmarma and the Gay Times that asked people to mark their sexuality on the Kinsey Scale reported in the 18-24 category, one in ten are now identifying as neither straight or gay. Around the world, societies are becoming more diverse, informed and articulate. The challenge for brands is how to reflect the tastes, hopes and attitudes of this audience in a way that feels real.
Speaking on the same panel as Findlay, actor, director and activist Kelly Washington, was asked the obvious follow up to all this—what makes an organization credible? “It’s about being seen a brave and being seen as able to take risks,” replied Washington. “To talk about diversity is fine, but to be able to truly disrupt, you have to go beyond algorithms and take risks. I think this is something that comes easier to women because as a woman working in a creative field, you’re always taking a risk.”
For brands, taking these risks often means following through and ensuring that authentic inclusivity always means active inclusivity. Now that almost every facet of an organization can be easily scrutinized by the public, it’s not enough for companies to say that they are allies. They also need to show it. It’s a revolution that begins at home—a point beautifully illustrated in a slide presented during a Pride Over Pinkwashing session on Monday.
“Think of it as like a pyramid” explained Karmarama’s planning director Matthew Waksman at the outdoor session. “Yes, you’ve got these big, loud brand activations on the top, but to make a difference that has to be built on a foundation of organizational changes. You have to look at the people both in front and behind the cameras and say ‘do these people represent a diverse range of voices? Can we be doing more to make sure that we are?’”
The good news is, that on both sides of the lens, the media industry is doing a much better job at presenting a wider range of voices. UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies released a report in February that showed a significant rise in the number of women and people of color working in both the talent and production sides of the Hollywood Film industry.
Similarly, a study released today by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and Cannes Lion showed that in key areas, the depictions on gender, race and sexuality in advertising are improving, both in frequency and positivity. However, there is still work to be done. For example, women might make up 85 percent of worldwide purchasing decisions, but the number of women who are creative directors languishes at around 19 percent. And the issue is even more pronounced when looking at the representation of LGBTQ communities. The same Geena Davis report that showed positive movements, also showed that only 1.9 percent of adverts show characters that are clearly identifiable as non-heterosexual or non-cisgender, and that is a slight improvement.
One of the key issues is that the only time many companies talk about diversity, it’s usually as part of short-term campaign activations. Trans activist Charlie Craggs hit the nail on the head when she talked about the perennial problem with tokenism that portions of the media seem to fall back on rather too easily. “On the one hand, it’s great that I get asked to be a model in all these campaigns – which is clearly ridiculous, as I like chips way too much,” she jokingly told the Pride of Pinkwashing panel yesterday. “The only problem is, I’m booked in June and Pride Season every year and then hear nothing from anyone for the rest of the year. I’m like c’mon guys, a trans person is for life, not just for Pride!”
Brands are getting better at getting it right, and are discovering more authentic ways to join the inclusivity conversation. Paddy Power is not a brand you’d think as a natural ally of the LGBTQ community. The British and Irish bookmaker, with a long established brand voice filled with pranks, stunts and sometimes youthful banter, makes it a stalwart of the extremely straight British soccer coverage. Yet, they have been a long time supporter of gay rights, famously tackling the taboo of homophobia with rainbow laces in 2013 and even donating $10,000 to Stonewall per goal that Russia scored in the 2018 world cup (thumbing their nose at Vladimir Putin’s very public anti-gay stance). By sticking to a topic where they have authority, and using their voice to highlight LGBTQ issues, Paddy Power is highlighting inclusivity in the right way.
The point is, if you’re going to be an ally, do it with respect and understanding. “Whenever I work with a new brand, I always start by asking ‘why are you here?’” says Tag Warner, the Gay Times CEO who highlighted best practice at his panel.
“It’s a legitimate question. As a brand, if you’re turning up and thinking of rainbow flags then think again. You are speaking to a community that has incredibly diverse communities within it and while there is so much positivity, you also have to accept that you have to stick around for the negative. Not everything is two cute white guys kissing.”