New research shows that minorities in advertising are far more equal; and older people are the least equal of all writes Gabriella Griffith

You can be black, white, a woman or a man – but whatever you are, it seems, you can’t be old.

To mark the opening of Advertising Week Europe, the News Room Daily commissioned an exclusive poll from YouGov to ascertain what our real attitudes to diversity in advertising are.

In it, we showed a total of nine ads for three different brands: a luxury accessories brand, a toothpaste and an energy drink. We gave each three different treatments featuring people of varying age, ethnicity and gender - see the ads and survey results in the box below.

Respondents consistently favoured the younger models in both the toothpaste and luxury ads – even when they were older themselves. Despite this, when respondents were asked if the ads they watched on television represented the people they came across in their daily lives, a whopping two thirds said it did so very badly. Only 15% saw advertising as an adequate reflection of their daily lives.‘These stats suggest an inherent tension between people saying advertising doesn’t reflect their lives and then going for the young white woman selling toothpaste,’ says Eleanor Mills, editorial director of The Sunday Times. ‘Advertising is trying to tread a very thin line between being shocking or reflecting society back at us.’

Age may still be a sticking point with advertisers and shoppers alike, but the industry is aware that it’s an issue which must be resolved. ‘The older generations are the ones with the disposable incomes,’ says Lucy Jameson, CEO of Grey London. ‘But it’s hard when you’re just using older people for the sake of it – people can be cynical, especially when they think you’re just trying to make a point, so age can be quite challenging.’

The advertising industry is repeatedly accused of not reflecting the true ethnic, social, age and gender mix of the UK in terms of both output and workforce. According to our survey, ethnicity has little impact on brand choice. When we asked if advertising that includes a wide range of ethnicities changes how people feel about a brand, 69% said it didn’t. The survey’s energy drink ads, which had three different ethnicities, were all as popular as each other.

Luxury accessory adverts

‘Public sentiment has changed and the advertising industry is being forced to recognise that even if you’re painting aspirational pictures, the pictures need to be diverse. Otherwise the viewer will not connect,’ says Trevor Philips, deputy chair of the National Equality Standard.

Gender and racial stereotypes are still rife when it comes to how people are depicted in advertising. We asked about the sorts of roles in which people are shown. While 39% see men as being represented in very powerful roles, only 7% thought the same of women. Worse again, the black community was felt to be represented as very strong by just 4%, Chinese people by 3% and Indians by just 2%.

‘We find people feel very strongly about the roles played by people of ethnic minority, and this can also be applied to age and gender,’ says Fraser. ‘There is little diversity in the representation of doctors and dentists and so on. This is what is troubling – stereotypical images are what jar with people.’

When asked how people would feel about an ad featuring two dads and a baby, 40% said they would either find it offensive or think it was trying too hard to be provocative. Younger people took a different stance – 31% said they would find this scenario positive and inclusive.

‘If you are a brand and you use two dads in an ad, you are trying to appeal to a younger demographic, slightly shutting out the older generation’ says Mills. ‘You can see this in the recent fuss over Dolce & Gabbana. There is still a cringe factor for some, no matter how politically incorrect, around a homosexual relationship and the raising of children.’

The feeling is growing that advertising has a responsibility to represent diverse audiences, regardless of how some people might react to seeing something that makes them feel uncomfortable.

‘Do people’s sensibilities mean advertisers shouldn’t make efforts to change? I don’t think so. I think the changing nature of Britain means that adverts need to reflect society,’ says Karen Fraser, strategy director at Advertising Association.

‘I was part of a debate in the House of Commons on the representation of women in advertising and whether it lags behind reality. The consensus was that just because something jars with certain sectors of society, it’s no excuse to exclude these people from the advertising space.’

The ad industry’s diversity problem is far from resolved. What’s more, the desire to depict diverse scenarios is married with the need to do so with care and empathy.

‘You need to keep in mind how audiences want to see themselves in advertising,’ says Owen Black, senior account manager at Leo Burnett. ‘Sometimes, when we want people to know we are diverse we can go a little over the top when a more subtle approach would have worked better.’

Grey London has had some success using older people in its campaigns. One in particular was seen as surprising at first but ultimately reflected well on the agency and the brand.

‘We did an ad for Vodafone, featuring couples kissing throughout the age brackets,’ says Jameson. ‘We went right up to a couple in their 80s and the reaction was interesting – it made quite a few people feel uncomfortable but overall, it was positive because it made people think.’

Advertising teams with a wide mix of ethnicity, age and gender will help to ensure that the mix finally used in the creative sits well with the target audience.

‘If you project an image of a minority audience but they see their community in a different way, you’re going to have problems,’ says Black.

‘A diverse workforce allows us to check our biases and have a greater understanding of what people expect to see when they’re represented,’ he adds.

Join the diversity debate

The Advertising Association Presents Last One Standing, 6pm today at Newsroom Café. Do you think adland and its output reflects British diversity today? Are we making the most of the breadth of talent available? And if not, what’s it going to take to change things…and are we genuinely prepared to do it? These are just some of the questions four competitors will grapple with this evening as we ask: “UK advertising will never be truly diverse until we…?” Hosted by Eleanor Mills, editorial director of The Sunday Times, tonight will see four of advertising’s brightest young minds fight it out on this stage as they each make their pitch to the room… and put themselves at the mercy of our audience as you vote to determine which of the worthy contestants will be the Last One Standing.

Meet the Competitors:

  • Nicola Emmett, marketing communications manager at Microsoft.
  • Trevor Carroll, sales development, NewsUK.
  • Owen Black, strategic account manager, Leo Burnett.
  • Alison Tsang, head of insight, Manning Gottlieb.