I turned up this week on a cold January morning to find out the winner of Transport for London’s (TfL) first diversity competition. Up on the giant screens at Canary Wharf station, images and videos of Holland & Barrett’s new campaign were flashed for passing commuters to admire. The ads will be almost impossible to miss over the next few weeks as the retailer makes full use of its prize of £500,000 of free ad space.
The mood at the event was celebratory. Holland & Barrett was clearly thrilled to have won – as it should be, while for City Hall and TfL this positions them at the vanguard of conversations around the portrayal of women in advertising.
Yet I couldn’t help feeling that in 2019, and given the discussions around diversity the marketing industry has been having and the soul searching that has allegedly been done, it’s a competition that should no longer be required.
That isn’t to say the campaign from Holland & Barrett isn’t great, inclusive and diverse in every way. The ‘Me.No.Pause’ activity, created by agency Pablo, shines a spotlight on the great taboo of menopause, something almost all women will go through but that is barely spoken about. In doing that, it also speaks to an under-appreciated audience, older women, and their experiences.
The women featured in the campaign are also diverse. We have a woman who went through early menopause after being diagnosed with cancer, a lady who has battled with her weight, a women with multiple sclerosis and a lady who is very active in the LGBT community. Here is the full gamut of women, every shape and size and from every walk of life.
The question is how many more of the 90 brands that entered the TfL competition will cast their inclusive ideas aside now they haven’t won?
That was deliberate from Holland & Barrett. Its CMO Caroline Hipperson told me: “We wanted to represent that everyone goes through it. It’s not one type of woman it’s every type of woman. We want to showcase a variety of women.”
And yet it feels jarring that TfL and City Hall need to run this competition in 2019. Much as it feels jarring that Channel 4 still needs to run its competition to convince advertisers to include people with disabilities in their campaigns.
TfL’s customer director Chris MacLeod is less sceptical than me. He doesn’t see it as advertisers not doing it unless they are incentivised but as marketers being happy with the status quo and not wanting to rock the boat.
“I don’t think people are not doing it, or deliberately going out of their way to do sexist advertising; people don’t think like that. There is a lag and sometimes there can be a comfort in the status quo and doing what everyone else does,” he says.
“Sometimes people might be a bit nervous about what they see as more controversial topics and stepping out, is that good for business? Hopefully this will demonstrate it can be.”
In an increasingly polarised social media world it’s not hard to see why brands might be wary. Any brand that has stuck their head above the parapet has inevitably received both praise and criticism. Some of the vitriol aimed at brands and those starring in their ads has been appalling.
But this is not about asking brands to ‘do a Nike’. As Gillette showed, not every brand has permission to stand up and make a social statement. Nor would we want all advertising to suddenly be about social purpose – how boring would that be?
This is about asking brands and agencies to think about who they are putting in adverts and the message that sends across. Holland & Barrett could have just stuck with a message about the menopause and thought that was enough but it looked at diversity and inclusion across the campaign and it is all the richer, and hopefully more effective, for it.
Doing it for the right reasons
Holland & Barrett is also leading because it planned to make this campaign anyway. It is also putting its own time and resource behind it with social media and digital activity, as well as training store staff on how to answer women’s queries.
The question is how many more of the 90 brands that entered the TfL competition will cast their inclusive ideas aside now they haven’t won? Channel 4 had such problems with this it offered to match airtime for shortlisted campaigns that actually got made. So far only Ford has done it.
The hope is that competitions spark a debate, that brands and agencies will think a little more about how they portray people in their ads as media owners try to lead them down a more inclusive road.
Data suggests this is only happening slowly. There is still a huge disconnect between how marketers think they are doing and how consumers feel they are being represented. Kantar’s AdReaction study shows that while 76% of female marketers and 88% of male marketers think they are getting it right when it comes to offering positive role models, just 40% of women are happy with the way women are portrayed in ads, with that dropping to 35% for men.
The industry can and must do better. Competitions are great if they can inspire change. But that change needs to start happening.
This is the first year of TfL’s diversity competition, hopefully there won’t need to be too many more.