On 10 September, Channel 4 is hosting ‘Black to Front’, with the entire schedule, including ad breaks, showcasing Black talent, on- and off-screen. The broadcaster is living up to its pioneering reputation and claiming another first. As someone who calls repeatedly for greater representation you’d think I would be delighted, but I am not.
Yes, it is a good thing that the need to support and nurture talent from a wide range of backgrounds is being highlighted, however I am deeply uncomfortable about the execution. It feels incredibly tokenistic and I fear that, while it will provoke a bit of a conversation (and, let’s be honest, some racist abuse), there will be no lasting impact. Call me cynical but I just don’t see how an all-Black episode of Celebrity Googlebox or Hollyoaks or a series of ads especially made for the day are going to make a blind bit of difference.
I absolutely do want to see the reality of Britain’s rich diversity reflected in programming and editorial as well as in the ads. I want to see ads with women driving high performance cars; disabled people in the supermarket; girls playing in rough games and boys with dolls; men successfully doing domestic chores; people of Afghan, Somali or Polish heritage buying car insurance; a man over 50 promoting a shaving product. But they need to be authentic.
We see lots of ads now featuring Black faces, but all too often it feels like the creative has been developed without any input from an actual Black person. As I have said before, it is rare when I see an ad featuring an African, Caribbean or Asian family that am I convinced there is a large bag of rice or chilli sauce in the cupboard.
The lack of diversity on the agency and client sides, combined with a lack of confidence when it comes to diversity, is a recipe for disaster and lies at the heart of so much of the poor creative execution I see today. Some of the worst examples are when creatives (almost all white and affluent, almost all male) wanting to be edgy persuade their clients that they really need to embrace today’s changing social mores. The brand eager to extend its consumer base finds itself doing a TikTok collab with a young grime artist.
This would be great for a sports apparel brand but less so if it is flogging embrocation. Disastrous for the brand which will have risked alienating its core consumer base and whose inauthenticity will have put off potential new consumers. Also a disaster for the young musician, who will struggle to live down the association with lumbago.
Understand cultures and communities
The solution is obvious: increase the diversity of your team and educate yourself.
Having different people in the room who are truly empowered to speak up will create better solutions. It isn’t easy, I know. You have to work really hard to bring people from different backgrounds and with different perspectives into your organisation. It is even harder to create a culture in which everyone feels they belong. And, of course, the very nature of diversity is that we will all have different views, there will be differences of opinion, there will be disagreement. That is the point.
Connecting to broader communities in a meaningful way is not about headline-grabbing stunts.
But for organisations that like to think of themselves as families where we all get along, where we are all one lovely, happy team, this can cause real anxiety and fear. It needn’t be like that. It is possible for colleagues to have professional differences and still like and respect each other. I would say it is a requirement for a healthy workplace environment.
Knowing more about the cultures and communities of your consumers will give you the confidence to know whether an idea is right for the brand; at the very least you will be in a better position to know when you might need more counsel. I speak on a daily basis with clients who know that they don’t know enough. To be clear, I cannot and do not speak on behalf of all under-represented groups. I speak as a Black woman, a feminist, an asylum seeker, a Spurs fan, a South African, a Londoner, a dyslexic, and any and all of the other aspects of my life which might be relevant. I don’t know what it is like to be gay, to be Eastern European, to have a mobility impairment, but I do know what it is like to be different.
I would strongly advise when a brand wants to engage with different people, it should actually talk and listen to people who are. Connecting to broader communities in a meaningful way is not about headline-grabbing stunts, it is about genuinely reflecting the lives and aspirations of the extraordinary mix of people who live in this country, every day.