The “Diversity Strategy” in Advertising

A few weeks ago, I sat down to start studying for yet another midterm. I clicked open my favorite study playlist on YouTube.  I waited semi-patiently to click the “skip ad” button and get to my music. However, the ad that was playing caught my eye: Bringing People Together One Cup at a Time.

It’s an ad for Red Rose tea. It’s also a coming out story.

The scene is set in dim lighting, which gives a sense of calm, and there’s a father making his daughter some tea. Amy arrives: it turns out this is the day the daughter is finally going to introduce her girlfriend to her father. The calm turns into tension as the father gets up and walks out of the room, face emotionless. Your heart plummets even though you know it’s an ad and there’s no way this is how it ends.  The father comes back in. You smile because in his hands is a cup of tea for Amy, and you think wow, this is how it’s supposed to go. The camera pans out to a pair of cups with the Red Rose logo.

There’s no question this ad made me feel pretty warm and fuzzy, but there was another part of my brain that felt a definite level of discomfort about that combination of messages and the medium used to promote them. I wondered how many companies were using this “diversity strategy” as I’ll call it, to promote their products.

It turns out quite a few.  Audi has Daughter, an ad about a young girl winning a cart race. The ad is narrated by her father, who wonders if she will be judged on her ability or her gender. 84 Lumber has The Entire Journey, an ad which follows a mother and daughter’s journey to immigrate to the US. It ends with the pair reaching a wall, but finding in it a massive door, through which sunlight shines.

Watch these, or Nike’s What Are Girls Made Of?, Airbnb’s We Accept, Amazon’s Priest and Imam ad, or find more yourself. Although they seem sweet on the surface, they clearly raise some complicated questions.

These ads attempt to address some pretty major issues: issues with complicated and often dark histories. Yet advertising is about idealization, not truth. Does that make it the right medium to attempt this?  A number of these ads are one-minute clips, which means oversimplification is necessary. Does this idealization and oversimplification tend towards invalidation? Exploitation? Is it fair to turn people into symbols? Of course advertising has been doing this for years, but is the same level of consent present when the video is supposed to represent, for example, an “immigrant family”? Are these ads simply capitalizing on other people’s struggles and hardships? Audi does suggest that they’re making concrete changes relating to equal pay for women, but can we truly verify this?

On the upside, however, advertising is created by people who know how to impact our minds, which perhaps makes it the best medium for this sort of message.  Advertisers have money, and they throw a lot of it at a clip of only a couple minutes. This leads to the presentation of carefully selected, high-quality imagery used to promote messages of kindness and inclusion. Addressing these issues in advertising means these issues are being addressed in mainstream media, perhaps reaching people who are less likely to pay attention to university rallies or marches in downtown Toronto.

But is this sort of advertising really just smoke and mirrors? Is it a front that allows companies to keep exploiting people with less power, while making money from people with power, who get to feel good about themselves, without having to implement any real change?

Advertising is not altruistic.  There are clearly going to be ulterior motives. While it would be foolish to ignore these motives because we want to hold onto that warm and fuzzy feeling, I don’t think these motives necessarily negate the possibility of an overall positive impact. In the end, it’s about compromise.

Maybe these ads aren’t the ideal way to affect change, but if we accept our world as both capitalist and a little messed up, perhaps they are an okay way, within these constraints, to make a difference.

I’m just one person with one set of experiences. I can’t speak for women, immigrants, people who identify as LBGTQ+, or any of the other groups represented in this type of advertising. But, as a broad generalization, I’d say advertising that capitalizes on feelings of inclusion, feelings which could have the potential to start healing the rifts in our society, is a step forward from advertising that capitalizes on viewing women as sexual objects, especially in light of the severe issues our culture is currently dealing with regarding rape.

Our subconscious greatly impacts our conscious thought. If this advertising is reaching everyone I find it hard to believe that the presence of these images isn’t planting some tiny seed of positive change along with its consumer messaging: the latter was going to be there anyway.  Advertising is a powerful reflection of a culture, and perhaps this advertising style is an indication of progress on a long journey towards change.

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