How to Add Diversity Responsibly
By Aaron Broverman
Television network executives seem to finally be waking up to the fact that diversity is good for business.
Research out of UCLA tells us that shows with more diverse casts do better in the ratings, with casts that are 40 to 50 percent minority having larger audiences than shows where the casts are less than 10 percent minority. Minority groups also watch more TV than anyone else. A 2011 study from Northwestern University reports that minority children watch four and a half more hours of TV than other children. Plus, this fall, ethnic minorities outnumbered caucasians in U.S. schools for the first time.
While the shows on the air are not proportionally equal to the real world in their diversity, the increasingly competitive TV landscape has responded to the research — shows like Blackish, Empire, Cristela and How to Get Away with Murder all featuring racial minorities in leading roles.
It doesn’t even stop there. GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV report noted increased visibility for the notoriously underrepresented transgender and disabled communities through shows like American Horror Story: FreakShow, Game of Thrones, Transparent and Orange is the New Black.
As the television landscape has gotten more diverse, the advertising that pays for it has also shone a spotlight on minorities – from a wheelchair basketball game with a surprise ending, and a same-sex couple in print campaign for Banana Republic to a multi-racial family featuring a dad with a disability.
With inclusion translating to big money for advertisers, we wanted to know what it takes to feature and promote this influx of diversity responsibly – without offending the groups represented.
Josh Loebner is the legally blind author of his own Advertising and Disability blog and a brand strategist for Design Sensory – a brand design consulting firm out of Knoxville, Tennessee. He offered a number of tips for any PR or advertising firm including minorities in its next campaign.
Reach Out to Organizations Representing Minority Groups You’re Featuring
The best way to ensure you won’t be treading on a no-go zone where a minority is concerned is to involve members of that minority in the campaign right from inception.
“What I’ve found in my conversations with different agencies and clients is the creative director or some other representative from the agency will reach out to the local organization representing that minority,” says Loebner.
“It could be as simple as e-mailing a script to that organization and that organization tweaks it or approves it, or if it’s a video production featuring on set talent, that organization may want to be represented on set to make sure everything is copacetic and moving in the direction it needs to move.”
For example, in a Liberty Mutual spot featuring paraplegic actress Teal Sherer, Liberty’s marketing team reached out to a non-profit media organization and Teal herself to make sure her disability would be portrayed correctly.
Realize a Large Portion of Your Audience Could Be Connected to a Minority
The first step in featuring and promoting minorities is the recognition that there is every possibility a member of that minority is part of your customer base or that one of your customers likely has minority members in his or her family.
“Even the disabled audience in the U.S. reaches upwards of 50 million people if you include their families,” says Loebner.
“To those advertising and PR firms that want to share the perfect image of the brand and its relationship with consumers, realize that normal connectivity is with many different types of people.”
Nike recognizes this. If you’re a leg amputee with a U.S. address, you can reach out to Nike and they will send you one free shoe a year through their One Shoe Bank program.
Watch Your Narratives and Stereotypes
Minorities can never be normalized in society unless they are a normal feature in society’s media. To that end, Loebner advises brands not to make a minority group’s difference the focus of its advertising, but an incidental feature instead.
In addition, brands should make an effort to avoid traditional stereotypes and narratives associated with those minorities in their advertising and PR, such as the inspirational narrative often associated with people with disabilities.
Take Oscar Pistorious: the “Blade Runner” saw brands lift him to mythic status before he ultimately crashed, thanks to the widely reported challenges in his personal life.
“It’s challenging for advertisers to lift up anyone onto a pedestal because of the potential risks a celebrity or individual endorser may have,” says Loebner.
“My recommendation would be to be inclusive from a real-world situation, rather than a caricature. Leave the focus off the disability itself and move it towards that person’s interaction with the brand.”
However, Loebner also points out that the more low-key brands are about featuring minorities in actual paid advertisements, the more they’re able to seize on PR opportunities for getting the people they represent visible and heard.
“These days we also tell a transmedia story. One 30-second spot can be expanded online through extended cuts and behind-the-scenes featurettes,” Loebner adds. “Maybe the narrative isn’t as overt in the initial television spot, but the brand, the agency and those organizations connected to the minority can take the opportunity to tell the story in a richer way online.”