We’ve come a long way, and while there are many things we as marketers have done to advance diversity and inclusion in positive ways, there is still room for improvement, and our journey has not been without its missteps. This Plain Talk article will not only recognize the progress over the past 50 years but will also address some of the current failings and opportunities.
When we talk about diversity in marketing, we first have to identify that we’re talking about target audience diversity – racial, ethnic and sexual diversity and inclusion. Marketing diversity can refer to a product or geographic diversification. This article is about the inclusion, exclusion, targeting and stereotyping of women, minorities and the LGBTQIA+ community and our industry’s efforts to improve.
The Role of Marketers
As marketers, our job is to be on the edge but not over the cliff. In college, we were told that we both mirror and mold our zeitgeist. So, while we were subject to the time and cultures of the said past times, we can and should still be judged for the directions we led.
Our History with Women
As marketers, we were quick to realize the importance of women in decision-making; we even created the first soap opera, “Painted Dreams,” over 90 years ago, when only 24.3% of women were in the workforce, and housewives made most of the daily consumer packaged goods (CPG) buying decisions for their nuclear-households. In fact, the soap opera was created and even named for its ability to reach women daily with the expressed intent of selling them laundry detergents and other CPGs, with Proctor & Gamble having produced 20 soap operas. The longest-running soap opera, Guiding Light, actually ran contiguously on radio, then TV, for 72 years, ending in 2009. In cultures with high marriage rates and stay-at-home moms, like Latin-X, not born in the U.S. (58%-60%), soap operas are still popular today.
Unfortunately, this history of men marketing to housewives led to objectification, stereotyping and judgment of women, as seen in these ads from the 50s, 60s and 70s.
As the percentage of women working out of the home increased from less than 1/3 in 1948 to over 1/2 by the end of 1978, ads were developed to target the career woman and her dual role; my favorite lyrics, like “I can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan,” and “’Cause I’m a woman – Enjoli!”
While this jingle is catchy and will likely be in your head the rest of the day, it helped establish the unrealistic expectation that mom could do it all! As The Huffington Post, now HuffPost, critiqued in 2012, “I agree with the anti-Enjoli intelligentsia that this idea that women can “have it all” is absurd. In reality, as women like my mother know all too well, what “have it all” meant was that society “allowed” mothers to go to work, but only if they didn’t let their domestic responsibilities slide. So, if by “have it all” you mean two crappy jobs, one that starts at nine and one that starts at five, then yes, you sure could have it all – and an exciting new scent to go with it! Ba-da-da-dum.”
Marketing to Women Today
While each of the above ads today would be viewed as overtly sexist and inappropriate, are we still missing the mark that bad? According to Kantar 2019 AdReact, Getting Gender Right Report, while 91% of us marketers think they portray women as positive role models, only 45% of our audiences agree! And even though roughly half of advertising jobs are held by women, the industry as a whole is still guilty of viewing women through a male lens. Research shows women don’t want advertising to be judging but rather recognizing, endorsing and loving.
According to Jane Cunningham, The New York Times, August 26, 2021 , “But when you actually talk to women, their aspirations are not, in fact, to be beautiful through the male lens; it’s to feel comfortable in their own skin. It isn’t to be dependent; it’s to maintain their independence, particularly their financial independence. The great female-made brands we talk about in the book (Brandsplaining: Why Marketing is (Still) Sexist And How To Fix It.), like Frida Mom or Third Love, make women feel seen as they are not as men want them to be. That’s the big shift that needs to happen. Brands need to stop telling women how to be and start being in service to them.”
In the same article, Cunningham and her coauthor, Philippa Roberts, discuss how age-defying has turned into “ageless,” and dieting has coded itself as “wellness.” They define it as “sneaky sexism” and argue that large brands still don’t get it.
Further, Kantar found far fewer ads featuring women trying to be funny (just 22% vs. 51% featuring men). However, humor improves ad receptivity with both genders more than any other ad characteristic.
Over-Advertising to Women
According to the same Kantar report, 98% of household, cleaning and baby products from 2010-2019 were exclusively marketed to women, yet both men and women are decision-makers. Often advertisers enhance stereotypes by exclusively marketing or even just over-representing men or women in ads where the product is bought or strongly influenced by both sexes in the traditional household decision.
Further, gender-balanced brands outperform gender-skewed brands.
As more women become part of executive teams, it is anticipated that brands will market in a more gender-balanced way. To support this notion, McKinsey’s 2019 analysis found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have had above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile – up from 21% in 2017 and 15% in 2014.
Our History with African Americans
While marketing to Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans is equally important, this article will only address African Americans. The history of marketing to African Americans is one that runs the gamut, from ignoring – even redlining – to exploitive-targeting, followed by awkward inclusion.
In 1948, at the same time African Americans were being excluded from the G.I. Bill, Modern Industry magazine estimated the spending power of the 14 million Black Americans at the time was $10 billion – an amount equal to that of the entire population of Canada.
Also, in 1948, Jax Beer was credited with the first commercial to target African Americans. The “Whistle A Up Party” ad is sweet, fresh and enjoyable, as it depicts three well-dressed African American couples at a house party singing around a piano and enjoying beer.
While African Americans were depicted as subservient caricatures to sell products by representing foreign (African origin), authority (coffee) or expertise (use of a wringer) dating back in ads to the 1880 or perhaps even before, the Jax beer ad marked the first time a relative mainstream brand made an ad to market specifically to the African American audience to spend their own money.
The Coca-Cola Company began featuring African Americans in marketing with the Harlem Globetrotters in 1951 and Olympic Games athletes Jesse Owens and Alice Coachman in 1953. Clark University student Mary Alexander became one of the first African American women to appear in print advertising when she was featured in 1955.
Competitor Pepsi, which had hired a separate African American salesforce dating back to the early ‘40s that peaked at 12 highly skilled reps in 1951, soon followed suit, as did many other mainstream marketers.
Founded in 1945 by John H. Johnson, Ebony Monthly Magazine was geared toward a middle-class African American readership. It was the first Black-oriented magazine in the United States to attain national circulation. In the ‘50s, Johnson personally pitched brands to use Black models and market to his audience. By 1960, there existed a parallel universe of mainstream and even niche products targeting African Americans in ads that only ran in Black media. Many of these ads from the era can be seen here.
Helen Williams originally modeled for Ebony and Jet. With the desire to cross over into mainstream media, she first had to go to Paris and model for Dior and Jean Dessès before returning in 1961. With the help of journalists highlighting her challenges, she is credited as being the first African American
model in the U.S. to cross over into mainstream marketing. She worked with brands such as Budweiser, Loom Togs and Modess.
While progress was being made in advertising, the country was still under Jim Crow laws until 1965, and the civil rights battle was in full swing on all fronts. People of color were having their communities targeted with interstate expansion and stadiums. So, while marketers were pursuing revenue from the burgeoning African American market, we were still mirroring and molding the society at the time. We were excluding people of color from mortgage and bank promotions, a now illegal practice called redlining.
By the 1970’s, ads targeting African Americans had become heavy with stereotypes, a far departure from the Jax beer ad. This Atlantic article on the topic covers it:
“Charlton McIlwain, an associate professor at New York University who specializes in race and media, said in an email that he views these tone-deaf ads as “the outcome of [advertisers] trying to do the right thing, but not necessarily knowing what that meant.” It goes on to say, “White-dominated ad agencies lacked a general familiarity with blacks and black communities, leading them” to design ads that were racially naive and necessarily relied on stereotypes for lack of any other information.”
The ’70s also saw the beginning of inclusion ads, the most famous being “I’d like to buy the World a Coke” in 1971, and the rise of the Black athlete/celebrity spokesman, including Bill Cosby for Crest Toothpaste (1969), OJ Simpson for Hertz (1978) and Mean Joe Greene for Coke in 1979.
As inclusion tried to become the norm, “Tokenism” became a problem in the late 80s and still carries on today as many brands inauthentically try to wedge the “Black Friend” into almost every commercial. This practice has led to disdain and backlash.
Nineteen percent of marriages in America in 2019 were interracial. Cheerios was the first national brand to cast an interracial family in a commercial in 2013. When it was originally posted on YouTube, General Mills pulled it down because the comments were so hateful.
Today, we see interracial ads every day. In a 2021 VOA article, Larry Chiagouris, a marketing professor at Pace University in New York, wrote, “It’s the brands wanting to let customers know they are listening and sensitive to their needs, many of whom are not Caucasian, and part of it is not wanting to be called out by some activists as being oblivious to people of color.”
In the same article, San Francisco State University in California Marketing Professor Subodh Bhat stated, “The public is no longer simply interested in which product might be slightly better, they also want to feel good about the company’s values.”
Whether it’s the advertising molding society or mirroring it, we can take pride in this accomplishment. What this means is that “love is overcoming hate!” It means that, as a society, the benefits of diversity and inclusion now outweigh the backlash. It may even mean that the race of an actor can be secondary to other factors when casting in the future.
Our History with the LGBTQIA+ Community
Marketing to the LGBTQIA+ community has been like the third rail of marketing until very recently, with most mainstream brands having chosen to purposely avoid it. And while those in the LGBTQIA+ community have always over-indexed in the advertising and arts community, until recently, marketing efforts toward this community were significantly behind. Even so, homoerotic imagery was commonplace in many mainstream ads dating back to World War I.
Pioneers like J. C. Leyendecker, who is credited with “virtually inventing the whole idea of modern magazine design,” routinely included homoerotic imagery in his ads and magazine covers. With the onset of the AIDS epidemic and the public’s anti-gay reaction, as well as the establishment of gay-centric publications, “gay-coded” ads all but disappeared by the early 1980s.
In 1981, Absolut Vodka became the first mainstream brand to commit to full-page ads in media outlets like The Advocate and After Dark, which targeted the gay community. The ads were the same ads they were running in traditional media, but they were just recognizing this particular audience in their own preferred media publications and supporting them with advertising dollars. In 1986, Absolut went one step further by running an ad created by openly gay artist and AIDS activist Keith Haring in all of their media. Most of the audience who identified as being straight had no idea, but to the gay community, it was a strong sign of support.
In the 90s, “gay coding” was back, only not in the form of blatant homoerotic imagery but in subtle cues obvious to this specific audience. Subaru gave a subtle shoutout at the time to its gay and lesbian customers with “XENA LVR” and “CAMPOUT” and the not-well-known at the time rainbow sticker on their cars in mainstream ads in the early 90s.
While many national brands saw Subaru’s success and started to include their own subtleties in pursuit of this large and growing market (Example in 2023: US LGBTQ Spending Surpasses 1.4 Trillion Dollars in 2021 – According to the Pride Co-op), in 1994, IKEA grabbed the bull by the horns and produced a mainstream ad about a male couple buying a dining room table.
It’s amazing this ad ran almost 30 years ago. While I had the same barn jacket, and everything in the ad looks time-era-appropriate, I’m still amazed it ran in 1994!
Not surprisingly, the backlash was immediate and severe. Bomb threats were called into stores. IKEA, when asked, calmly replied, “This is just part of our overall strategy to try to speak directly to all kinds of customers.”
So, while in the 2010s, lovable gay couples in TV shows like “Modern Family” were pretty mainstream and laying the groundwork for the couples and families we all see in ads today, there was no such foundation in 1994. But even today, with most companies making their logos rainbow every June for LGBT Pride Month, you mostly see just LGBTQIA+ couples woven into a montage of diverse couples and families in ads. Seldom do you see an entire mainstream ad where the main characters identify as LGBTQIA+.
As each generation has approximately doubled its non-cisgender representation over the generation before it, with 20.8 % of GenZ now identifying as LGBTQIA+ and 71% of the public supporting same-sex marriage, it’s safe to assume we’ll see a lot more LGBTQIA+ couples as the stars in ads.
As advertisers, we should feel like any other group of people looking back at their past. There are things for which we should be proud and things for which we should be ashamed. There were times we were strong as an industry in the face of adversity and times we were weak. There were times we did the right thing and times we did not. Looking back helps provide us with a stronger understanding and foundation to move forward – knowing 10, 20 or even 70 years from now, people will be scrutinizing our actions. Will we be bold like JAX Beer or IKEA? Or will we be weak?
As we better address diversity head-on, we need to ask ourselves three questions.
1. Are we acting from a place of love and acceptance?
2. Are we being authentic to our brand and in our approach to customers, or are we chasing popularity?
3. If culture was a wave, and our brand was a surfer, are we putting the brand just in front of the wave where it will crest and can be ridden? Or are we putting our brand too far in front of the wave so that it’s just baking in the sun. Or are we placing the brand behind the wave and watching it go by, only to be caught and ridden by the bolder brands in front of us?
As with all of our articles, this one ends with an open line. Feel free to give us a call at (502) 499-4209 or drop us a note here. We’re always free to chat!