Advertising has been in a long struggle with diversity. As America has become more heterogeneous, ad agencies are realizing the need to include more people of color in their billboards, magazines and commercials. For the most part, representation of minorities has increased. However, just as we see advertisers take a step forward towards diversity with a Campbell’s Soup commercial, no sooner are they stepping back with an ignorant Dove soap ad.
What about advertising for places such as schools, communities, or offices? Are they doing diversity right?
Diallo Shabazz was an African American student at the University of Wisconsin in 2000. Being one of the few students of color on a primarily white campus, Shabazz’s Photo Was Used for much of the university’s advertisements. However, one day Shabazz found himself on the cover of an undergraduate application—pictured at a football game. One problem—Shabazz had never gone to a football game. He quickly found out the university had taken his image and photo-shopped it into the cover photo.
We can all agree this was not the most ethically sound decision, but was University of Wisconsin’s attempt at diversity admirable? Is all diversity inherently good simply because it’s better than none?
Perhaps the ethical dilemmas institutions are facing these days aren’t about whether cutting and pasting someone’s face onto another image is okay (I would hope we know better by now). But maybe instead of underrepresentation, which is still extremely prevalent, institutions can struggle with misrepresentation.
Is picking out the few black students on campus to use in ads for a primarily white university okay? Is photographing the only Asian employee in the office justifiable? This begs the uncomfortable question of: can there be too much diversity in advertising?
First, consider truthfulness. Featuring a photo of a black student, a Hispanic student and a white student chatting over coffee on the homepage of a primarily white school’s website isn’t true to their ratio. Could this give people the wrong impression? Yes.
But what about one of the main goals of advertising—to reach a target audience? Director of Diverse Marketing at Youtube, Oona King, encourages advertisers, “Don't just reflect society—push it forward.” The case for diversity in advertising is to allow everyone to see themselves in ads. In order for schools, workplaces, and communities to become more diverse, they need to show people a picture of what it would look like for them to be there.
So here we find the challenge of the balancing act. There’s a thin line between positive and exploitative marketing. The problem is rooted in intent. Whether we know it or not, advertisers are either tokenizing or including people of color in marketing. If they are only being used as a strategy to make institutions look better, look better, then the result will be bad photo-shopping and exploited people. If, however, institutions are striving to best represent the reality we hope for and the representation these historically-underrepresented people deserve, then overrepresentation is better than underrepresentation. While incorporating more black people than true to the makeup of an institution brings necessary considerations, it is far better than not including enough.
The thing is, if as a society we don’t strive toward the ideal of diversity, we will not achieve it. Our human nature is inclined towards the familiar—those who look like us. But God calls us to transcend our human nature (as He often does) and transcend our natural inclinations. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul is not arguing against diversity in this verse; rather he seeks to celebrate it while highlighting our commonality and worth in Christ— a supreme fact that makes all our differences pale in comparison.
So, yes, diversity can be complicated and uncomfortable, especially in marketing. We are going to get it wrong and people will differ in their opinions about the best way to approach it. What is most important is the intent that drives marketing ventures and advertising campaigns. If we see everyone as made in the image of Christ, then all people, regardless of race or culture, should be represented and done so fairly.