diversity in marketing

Diversity in Marketing

diversity in marketing

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Marketing’s relationship with ideas like “diversity” and “inclusion” are complex.

In this case, I’m not talking about the workforce that makes up the marketing industry, but the actual execution of marketing — imagery, content, messaging, and other such elements.

The reason marketers face an extra layer of complexity has to do with the nature of how our profession works and how we’re trained. Allow me to point to one of the fundamental maxims of marketing:

Audience targeting.

In that term alone, you should be able to extrapolate a number of challenges that arise when it comes to diversity and equal representation.

The very idea of targeting specific audiences actively goes against the idea of equal representation, for better or for worse.

I noticed a good example of this many years ago — probably in the early 2000s, around the time I switched my career track from psychology to business.

I observed that McDonald’s was very deliberate in their targeted marketing, and it was very obvious in every medium that the restaurant chain touched. 

For me, it was most noticeable in their TV ads.


On channels with mostly white viewerships, the people in their ads were mostly white and represented within white cultural norms. On channels with predominantly black viewerships, the actors were all black, and the “slice of life” imagery was changed to reflect different cultural expectations. The same effect could be seen in markets or channels with higher latino populations or audience demographics. Even the subtle background music differed between these three (or more) different targeted ads.

Was McDonald’s committing racial and cultural pandering to sell more burgers, or were these ads well-executed acts of inclusion? 

For me, the truth is in the execution. (In marketing, the answer is always in the execution, really.) The first metric in my mind would be, “who are the individual people who created these ads?” If they were created by living, breathing representatives of the races they were meant to target, then there’s a much higher likelihood that these were inclusive commercials. 

That said, history is packed with examples of white executives gathering around a conference table and asking, “what do black people respond to? We need to make an ad that will resonate with them.”

It’s an uncomfortable thought, but it did and still does happen. In no small way, marketing is about asking “what do X type of people respond to?”

We’re trained to ask those questions. 

Nearly every day, I ask myself or a colleague something like “what would veterinarians respond to?” or “what would resonate with a car dealership?” And no, we don’t generally go out and hire a veterinarian or car salesperson to give us authentic insight into answering these questions. We research, we reach out, we empathize, but we don’t generally include them to the extent that they get a job on the creative team. 

And it’s not because we don’t want to. It’s just hard to imagine how the logistics of that would work (especially since people in other professions don’t generally respond to “hey, want a temp job in the creative department of a marketing agency?”)

But there is no logistical hurdle to hiring different races, genders, or cultures. When someone needs to answer the question of “what does X race respond to?”, they are morally, ethically, and logically obligated to bring people of that race into the decision-making process.  

Another maxim of marketing is authenticity, and inauthentic cultural representation is about as bleak of a road that a marketer can go down. The ignorance in doing so is multiplied a thousand-fold by the existence of social media, where hundreds of thousands of people are standing by 24/7 to smite down acts of virtue signaling or cultural appropriation. 

So the question of whether those old McDonald’s ads were inclusive or divisive rests largely on whether or not the people they were intended to represent were actually included in making them. 

This would at least guarantee a certain amount of accuracy in the resulting portrayals. 

But this begs the question — at least in my own mind — of the value of accuracy in these forms of cultural representation. Is accuracy such a good thing if it’s also harmful in some way? 

I would argue that it’s not innately good, because accuracy in terms of marketing and understanding audiences is largely based on compiled, and often old, statistics. Or worse, assumptions. This means we are very often responsible for spreading content and ideas that reinforce the status quo. (Think about any discussion having to do with fashion magazines or makeup ads in the last decade.)

If you know me, you know that I don’t think of the status quo as a good thing. Progress is awesome, and perceptions need to evolve to keep society moving toward something better than what we have now. 

Going back to the McDonald’s ads, I can recall a couple of them with some clarity. I also remember that I wasn’t entirely sure about how I felt about their messaging when I first saw them. 

In one ad, groups of clean-cut white people were playing with their children, walking into office buildings, and exercising in the park. The overall theme was, “you’re so busy doing all this great stuff, you need a quick meal.”  It all seemed pretty mundane and calculated, but not offensive. 

The other ad, narrated by a young black man, was about how he works day and night at becoming a basketball star. That was the entire core focus of the commercial, with the requisite “and when I’m not playing basketball, I eat Big Macs” subtext jammed in somewhere. 

There was a similar ad that ran around the same time wherein the young black narrator talks about how he works day and night to become a DJ, of course, taking frequent breaks to eat McNuggets along the way.

So I have to ask myself, is it true that so many young black men want to be basketball players or DJs that this is what the messaging had to be from a statistically-based marketing standpoint, or are these ads really just snap judgments based on the status quo and biased assumptions? 

Honestly, if there’s no data of any kind supporting the messaging, I would call such commercials outright racist. Are they examples of deliberate bigotry? Probably not. But without data, they’re examples of ignorance. 

Why? Because even with audience targeting, we still have to work the numbers. It’s impossible to craft a message that will resonate with 100% of a demographic, so we try to reach the largest number of people within that sample — often with the secondary objective of not pissing off the people who don’t resonate with the message, but not always.

When a company as big as McDonald’s is segmenting their audience along racial lines, we’re talking about some immense sample sizes. This means that they have to craft messaging that resonates with hundreds of millions of people without taking very many risks. Showing white people doing yoga, working in offices, and playing with their kids is pretty safe, even though many of us don’t do yoga, work in offices, or want children.

But what about portraying black youth as only having two options for success? Grind it out day and night, struggle, drink your Shamrock Shake, and maybe someday you will be in the NBA or get a record deal.

That tells me they’re working on the assumption that the largest statistical subset of the black demographic is made up of young men 100% focused on playing professional basketball. Which I find strange, because probability tells us that any given young black man is infinitely more likely to get into college than he is to get into the NBA. And many will go into college as part of their journey, or as a lateral move due to that passion to play professional sports. So where is the commercial about two-fisting Quarter Pounders to fuel up for the SATs?

I’m not a black man, but something about that messaging really bothers the hell out of me. According to McDonald’s, I have a high probability of getting an office job, a family, and a hot wife who does yoga — but the statistical majority of young black men are stuck with lottery odds at success via music or sports? 

There was certainly a time when this was a truism, and maybe it’s still true (being a white male, I lack the firsthand experience to make that call), but when marketers portray such things as reality, they’re ensuring a much higher likelihood that it will be, at least for another generation or two. In the same way the makeup industry sets certain standards of beauty, McDonald’s was setting the objectives of success for entire subsets of our society. 

Is this whole thing a misunderstanding on my part, misrepresentation on McDonald’s part, or is it a mirror-accurate reflection of reality?

I can’t help but think that the reason why that kind of messaging bothers me so much is not because it’s incorrect, but because it is correct, but only in the “let’s keep the status quo going” sort of way that I despise. 

What this all boils down to for marketers is awareness. I sometimes say that business owners don’t take marketing seriously enough, but marketers often slip in that department, too. I don’t want to sound like I’m glorifying my profession, but marketers at large have a huge impact on society. 

Our job revolves around managing perception, and many marketers are wizards when it comes to influencing large groups of people. People have been known to say things like “advertisers are the priests in the religion we call Capitalism” and other such tropes — but they say them for a reason. Marketing does, in fact, drive the masses.

As such, we must all be aware of the impact our decisions have beyond conversions and impressions. Sure, we want to make our clients more money — but we can also make the world a better place for everyone, even if it’s just one tagline or stock photo at a time. 
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