It’s too hard to be inclusive

Despite calls for more inclusivity within advertising, delivering a successful and appropriate campaign continues to be tricky. Zac Martin, planning director at TBWA\Melbourne, discusses.

We’re too scared to have this conversation. Because it’s uncomfortable. I certainly feel that way writing this. Especially as a straight white cis able-bodied male. But I’m happy to be a punching bag. It’s a convo we need to have.

In a former agency life, we were in post-production on a million-dollar ad campaign. But after months of strategy, concepting, production, even testing – we got a surprising email.

“The Board has seen the offlines, and they’re cancelling the campaign.”

Seven figures of investment, pissed away. And the reason? “They think the campaign is a bit racist.”

Because we’d cast a person of colour in a major role. Who was holding some gardening equipment. Which the (all white) Board said elicited images of slavery and was exploitative.

But the script had nothing to do with slavery, in fact the character was successful and independent. Oh, and the actor wasn’t from a region you’d historically associate with slavery. We’d made a deliberate effort to cast diversly, and right at the finish line the brand stumbled over its own feet. And there were two fall outs from this.

Firstly, the client, and perhaps the agency, become a little more likely to cast “safer” (read: more straight white able-bodied people).

Secondly, a trend emerges where diverse talent is only cast into “safe” roles. Glorified extras. Often non-speaking. Never the baddie. Or the butt of the joke. Or, god forbid, someone with a flaw. Diverse talent don’t tend to get characters with depth, who are imperfect and interesting. The good roles go to people who look like me, while the paper-thin boring ones are allotted to diverse hires.

This was a while back, but not long enough that it isn’t scary. Particularly given how little has changed.

The other week, Dylan Alcott highlighted just how far we have to go when it comes to representation in advertising. Despite nearly 20% of Australians living with a disability, they make up fewer than 5% of people in our ads.

We need to do better. But, sadly, it’s easy not to.

I’ve been in rooms where there’s been a suggestion to cast, say, someone in a wheelchair. Not for a role which has anything to do with wheelchairs, but because, as Alcott says, people with disabilities “still buy cereal, fast food, toothpaste, insurance, underwear, travel and open bank accounts like every other Australian”.

But the argument against comes in many forms.

Five pushbacks you hear against making more inclusive ads.

1. Meritocracy should win.

How many times have you heard “We should just cast the best talent, irrespective of other factors.” This is super tricky. Because no one wants talent who isn’t up for the job. But this argument overlooks the privilege the “best talent” has been afforded – experience which hasn’t been available to others because we didn’t create the opportunities. It’s paradoxical.

2. It’s too hard.

“Diverse talent is more difficult to find and cast.” Yep. Absolutely. It will take time and money. But there are dedicated partners who can help with this.

3. It confuses the story.

“We don’t want to muddy the water by introducing an unnecessary element to the narrative.” Another one that is tricky. Stories should be simple. But don’t underestimate your audience – they can probably takeout the key message even if someone in your ad is on crutches. Or transgender.

4. It’s token and/or virtue signalling.

“We’re just doing it to be trendy.” No you’re not. This is how change happens. You can’t be what you can’t see. Social norming is critical to behaviour change.

This usually goes hand in hand with the fear of being labelled as woke. And I get it – brands should be cautious of being seen as political, particularly after Bud Light’s debacle in the culture wars last year. But you must understand your audience. If you’re a traditional brand targeting middle-aged conservative white men, maybe there’s some merit here. Sad, but true.

5. We don’t want to accidently stereotype.

“What if we get it wrong and make things worse?” Well, you gotta do the work. And bringing more diverse people into the process is the best way to catch mistakes or unconscious bias. But don’t let perfection paralysis stop you – you get points for trying.

The 2024 Australian Lamb ad got called out for stereotyping

Sadly these hurdles all add up. 

It’s too hard to be inclusive, and that’s why we’re not progressing fast enough.

Humans are creatures of habit. And we’re lazy. Once something gets difficult, it tends not to get done. We default to what we’ve always done.

Any hurdle is enough to stop change. But many make it nearly impossible.

It’s really not good enough. We can do better. 

Clearly whatever we’re doing isn’t working. If we want to see change, we need to disrupt the way we work. With initiatives more substantial than using foreign-sounding names in scripts. Or optional requests to “consider diverse casting here”.

Here’s a few we’ve been talking about. (Which are by no means new, nor mine.)

1. Mandate options.

Require at least one in three proposals aren’t from cis men – director’s treatments, crew, talent, etc. Make diverse casting options a requirement, not a throw away comment. And put them in front of clients.

2. Bring more diverse people into your team.

Hire people who don’t look like you, in your teams and in your crews. Take meetings with new partners and suppliers. This comes with the added benefit of making better work too – with more diverse insights and being able to tell more diverse stories. Set quotas.

3. Acknowledge it will take work.

A new generation of talent (in agencies, on camera, and behind it) aren’t coming from the same sources as the last. We’ll have to work harder to find them, convince them, and cultivate them. Start mentor programs, allocate resources and investment, and be willing to get it wrong.

4. Track objective data.

Audit your employment records and call sheets. Collect better data moving forward (ask people for their pronouns and background). Set targets, publish them and hold yourself accountable. Transparency matters.

5. Start having tough conversations. 

I can’t tell you how many productive conversations I had just writing this. These topics are messy. There’s nuance, and grey, and emotion, and politics. But we need to start talking about it. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Because it’s uncomfortable.

It’s time to move beyond wishful thinking. Because there’s too many barriers in the way, and it’s too hard to break through all of them. Instead, we need more substantial efforts if this is something we really want to tackle. And it starts with a convo.

Maybe then we can drive change, to reflect the real face (and body and mind) of Australia.

Zac Martin is a planning director at TBWA\Melbourne.  


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