Almost all agencies say that their advertising influences the culture, but how do you influence the culture if your agency doesn’t reflect the culture? Agencies are monochromatic and Blacks account for no more than 1-2% of senior managers. That is not surprising to me.  In the last few years my firm has been asking agencies for similar data when we manage agency searches and share it with our clients. 

The lack of diversity in agencies leads to lack of representation in advertising. And, there’s a price to pay for that. From 2017 to 2019 Deloitte measured ROI of diversity. The stock price of brands that featured the most diversity in their advertising performed 69% better than that of brands that featured the least. And those same diversity-friendly brands received a Brand Index consumer preference scores that were 83% higher than their counterparts.

To drill down, Cannes Lions analyzed winning and shortlisted work from over a decade, to find out how agencies treat diversity. This study examines representations of gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ+, disability, age, and body size in ads between 2006-2019.

People of color have better representation in ads in terms of overall numbers, 38% compared to 25% in 2006, and the length of time they appear on screen. Characters of color are equally likely as white characters to be featured in both speaking roles and visually prominent roles. However, they are more likely than whites to be depicted in ways that reinforce stereotypes, for example, as athletes, and not aspirational. For example, white characters are more likely to be shown in an office or in an occupational setting.

While more agencies are managed by women, results revealed that there had been no improvement in the representation of women since advertising 2006. Women continue to be outnumbered by male characters when it comes to overall representation (62% compared with 38% in ads), and in screen time, as well as in speaking time. This indicates that women matter less to agencies advertisers and are still used as props. For context, women make up 51% of the population, and, make or influence as much as 80% of purchase decision. Women simply appear less often in the Cannes Lions work, and when they do appear, too often the survey found that they are still depicted as sex objects, humorless, and lacking in power. 

LGBTQ+ characters are virtually nonexistent in ads, and on the rare occasion they do appear, they are less likely to be depicted in positive light compared to other characters in the ad. LGBTQ+ characters are often stereotyped in Cannes Lions work. 

People with disabilities too are virtually absent in ads as well, but at the few times that they do appear, their representations at least do not reinforce negative stereotypes. People with disabilities are usually shown as smarter than other characters in the ad. 

People who are 60+ are vastly underrepresented in ads, and when they appear, they are represented in both positive and stereotypical ways. They are more likely to be shown as leaders, as possessing authority, and as smart. However, their physicality is commonly a punchline. 

Characters with large body types are vastly underrepresented. In Cannes Lions work, 7% of characters are shown with large body types. For context, people with large body types make up 39% of the global population. When they appear in ads, characters with large body types are more commonly depicted as lazy or as comic relief prop, and they are nearly five times more likely to be depicted as “stupid” than characters with medium or small body types. Depictions of characters with large body types reinforce some very ugly stereotypes about body size. 

Advertising dependency on stereotypes is pretty disgraceful. It reflects lack of D&I, and it’s done poorly, like checking a box. Agencies need to recognize that people are nuanced, complex, relatable human beings, and treat them as such. It’s time for ad agencies to hire a more diverse staff and become completely transparent about their progress and hiring practices.



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