Pursuing Best Practices For Representation In Advertising

Apr 13, 2022 by Eric D. Reicin, President & CEO, BBB National Programs

It is estimated that, on average, consumers are presented with up to 10,000 discrete advertisements a day. As this number continues to grow, so too do people’s expectations of representation in advertising. As Facebook IQ described in a recent report on diversity and inclusion in online advertising, “People around the world are demanding to see themselves better represented in advertising. They want to see the true diversity of their communities depicted more often—and more accurately—across many areas, including race, gender, sexual orientation and people with disabilities.”

Unfortunately, advertising collectively is still falling short, and consumer perceptions reflect that. According to Facebook IQ's findings, 54% of consumers do not feel fully represented in online ads. The Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing (AIMM) confirmed this lacking consumer perception in its review of Super Bowl ads: They found 45% of ads had casts that represented diverse and inclusive audiences in the 2021 game telecast. This year, though the official data is not yet analyzed, my observation is that there was an improvement in representation across this year’s Super Bowl commercials.

Why answer this call from consumers? As the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) put it, the use of harmful stereotypes can "restrict the choices, aspirations, and opportunities of children, young people, and adults, and these stereotypes can be reinforced by some advertising." Guy Parker, chief executive of ASA, also noted, "Put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads can, over time, play a part in limiting people’s potential.

The argument for eliminating harmful representations and increasing positive representations in advertising goes beyond advertising ethics: Many believe that there is a clear business case for better representation. For example, Microsoft, in their study on the effects of inclusion in advertising on Gen-Z specifically, found that 70% of Gen-Z consumers are more trusting of brands that represent diversity in ads, and 49% have stopped purchasing from a brand that did not represent their values.

 

What is being done to address the lack of representation?

Several countries have developed self-regulatory standards that prohibit certain kinds of discrimination in advertising. In addition to standards, many countries are conducting critical research on the harms that unfavorable representations of race and ethnicity can bring about.

The ASA, for example, just released a research report called "Tackling Harmful Racial and Ethnic Stereotyping in Advertising." In addition to defining three broad potential harms that can arise from these problematic portrayals, the report identifies five categories of racial and ethnic stereotypes for advertisers to be aware of and provides helpful guidance to advertisers on how to steer clear of unintentional harm or offense through their depictions of race and ethnicity.

While U.S. law prohibits misleading advertising, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects free speech (among other important and fundamental rights), meaning while an advertisement cannot be prohibited for being offensive, thoughtful advertising decision-makers will remove an ad from the marketplace for being misleading. There is growing recognition that adverse stereotypes can be harmful and misleading; they can contribute to bias and create harmful effects on the stigmatized populations who feel devalued.

AIMM has been working to help the advertising industry make good on its public commitments to diversity through the creation of tools such as the Cultural Insights Impact Measure (CIIM), which examines the impact and effectiveness of cultural insights in ads. Industry-wide movements—like the #SeeAll Campaign, which pushes for more accurate representation of multicultural segments in a greater number of ads—are also having an impact. Beyond these efforts that encourage positive behavior, other organizations, including the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) within my organization, are working to deter problematic behavior in the uniquely vulnerable children’s space and other specific focus areas. CARU recently released new guidelines for responsible advertising, including one that holds companies accountable for negative social stereotyping, prejudice, or discrimination in child-directed advertising.

Given the growing understanding of how stereotypes harm consumers, should independent industry self-regulatory programs expand this work to cover all national advertising?

 

Shifting Expectations

I have seen a shift in expectations for businesses by consumers on this topic in recent years, and this shift suggests the need for a similar shift in the way that businesses act.

For instance, when it comes to getting representation right in advertising, responsible businesses should incorporate practices such as adding prompts during brainstorming sessions to check for bias and help make sure that inclusive ideas are a part of each stage of the process.

In addition, I suggest businesses take advantage of the various tools available to have their ads reviewed before they go live. These reviews help save time and money by assessing the ad's level of representation and diversity before you get to the final cut. Bringing in an outside perspective can be incredibly helpful.

Prioritizing diversity and inclusion and pursuing best practices for representation in advertising is dependent on building good habits. When building those habits internally, never forget that sometimes the best measure can come from collecting consumer feedback on your efforts.

Originally published in Forbes.

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