The advertising and marketing world has come to use diverse casting as a crutch rather than doing the work to make sure its output is truly inclusive, according to Efrain Ayala, Reckitt’s global director of diversity and inclusion, and member of the World Federation of Advertisers’ Diversity and Inclusion taskforce.
“I've seen many brands and many storytellers stumble because they've been distracted with diverse casting, treating it with a tick box exercise and trying to be everything to everyone,” said Efrain.
“It's okay to stumble, we're all on these journeys but we really need to be learning from these missteps if we are going to change the game and actually create lasting impact,” he continued.
That’s not to say diverse casting isn’t important, but when done in isolation and no thought about portrayal and messaging, content with the most diverse cast in the world can end up having a negative impact on culture. Efrain pointed to a now-pulled Heineken ad for its low calorie beer that featured a diverse cast but contained a toxic message around light being ‘better’.
Indeed, Efrain pointed out, despite a push for diverse casting across the industry, consumers felt less included and represented.
Efrain suggested that the industry expands its focus from diverse casting to positive portrayal - considering how everything from script to lighting can impact the portrayal of people.
A clear sense of purpose too, argued Efrain, can help brands appreciate the impact they can have on the world. “It’s about fundamentally understanding the positive contribution we can make with our brands, with our work.”
To make the point, Efrain shared an illustrated NHS covid-19 campaign. While it depicted people with a range of ethnicities and skin tones, the home-based campaign showed women exclusively in caring roles, and showed just one man who was watching TV. An ‘improved’ version of the ad showed men and women sharing domestic responsibilities and also showed women in professional roles - and Efrain pointed out that it had a positive portrayal of both men and women.
Bringing the focus to healthcare and Reckitt’s approach, Efrain outlined a few initiatives. In terms of representation, he said the team had surveyed marketing content in the advertising space to truly understand the state of portrayal. They found that men were 2.4 times more likely to be cast as highly skilled healthcare professionals such as doctors and surgeons than women, and light skinned people were three times more likely to be cast in such roles.
From a purpose perspective, Reckitt’s has been looking at gendered inequalities in the healthcare provision. The UK has the twelfth largest gender-based healthcare gap in the world and women are being left behind, feeling unheard by healthcare providers and abandoned on many female-specific topics like menopause.
Investigating and understanding systemic barriers allows leaders to truly interrogate the assumptions underpinning their marketing.
“When you understand the barriers, you can see who has been left behind. Diverse casting doesn’t do that work,” said Efrain.
A curious leader is going to consider “whose voice is artificially amplified in this insight and whose voice has been left out?” said Efrain, urging leaders to be curious and not to stop questioning and asking questions, and sign-posting the WFA’s resources and roadmaps
to help leaders deeply query their work and how it portrays people.