The advertising diversity conundrum: Balancing diversity, accuracy and sales

Four people holding up eyes and mouths of other races over their own face to mask their race
Photo:”Diversity Mask” by George A. Spiva Center for the Arts is licensed under CC BY 2.0

On a recent trip to London, I entertained myself on long tube rides by analyzing their advertisements. What struck me most was the lack of diversity in their ads. Here I was, in one of the top 10 most diverse cities in the world, and about 90% of the people featured in ads where Caucasian. This reminded me of the advertising diversity conundrum that we all face:

Do we utilize people who will sell the most for us and not worry about representing who buys our product?

Adore Me uses A/B testing to decide which models to feature based on sales. The result is great sales and all of the models are very similar in look: olive skin, dark hair.

Do we accurately represent the population where we are advertising?

This stance usually means, if 33% percent of people in the population are one group and 40% another, then 33% of the people in your ads should be of the first group and 40% of the people in your ads should represent the second group.

Do you make sure and represent as many diverse groups as you can in each communication?

An example of this stance in execution: a college recruiting brochure should have one person from each racial group, one person that is a non-traditional age, one person with a disability, etc. Another recruiting brochure should have a similar mix.

Do we do some form of combination of the above? Or something else?

But it gets even more complicated than that. Some particular diversity in advertising conundrum questions I’ve faced in my career:

– Where is the line as to which groups should be represented? By putting one student, who was Native American, in one ad over the course of one year, we were over-representing the number of Native Americans who attended the college I worked at. But if we hadn’t included him, the Native American population would have been underrepresented.

– “Non-traditional” age students don’t respond less to ads with only “traditional age” (18-24) students in them. But traditional age students are less likely to respond to ads of non-traditional students. So, should we still put non-traditional age students in ads?

– I once conducted a focus group at a university where a student complained that, by representing every group in all of the recruiting brochures, the university had falsely given the impression that the campus was incredibly diverse. He was very disappointed when he arrived and found the campus a lot less diverse than he thought based on the brochures. Should the university stop this practice?

– It’s hard enough to get students to show up to photo shoots, how do you responsibly and ethically get a diverse mix of students to show up?

– What about other forms of diversity that are valuable, but hard to see in a five second ad? For example, veterans are an important part of every college campus, but usually don’t go to class wearing their uniform from when they were in the service. How do you accurately represent them in your ads?

These are not easy questions, but they are questions we all grapple with. How do you handle representing diversity in your ads? Which philosophy do you think is best?

Photo:“Diversity Mask” by George A. Spiva Center for the Arts is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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