Diversity and Representation are essential to creating a more equitable society
That’s just a statement of fact. People come in all colors, races, shapes, and sizes. Denying that just perpetuates harmful stereotypes and invisibilizes the things that make each individual so unique. That said, if your goal is to create inclusive marketing campaigns, doing so is not as simple as performing a stock search for BIPOC faces and calling it a day.
Truly inclusive campaigns require nuance, research, and a commitment to the community voices you’re elevating. As we continue to see a rise in social justice movements, we’ve also seen marketing campaigns that highlight diversity to varying degrees of success. Before proceeding into uncertain waters and suffering from the backlash that is the inevitable result of perceived insincerity, ask yourself some fundamental questions.
What are inclusivity and diversity, and why do they matter?
If you’ll forgive the sadly necessary detour into book report territory—inclusion, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “the act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability),” among other, less relevant definitions. In the same vein, “diversity” refers to “the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization.”
These concepts are part and parcel of fostering representation in media campaigns.
More important, however, is the effect that diverse media has on how people treat each other. The way people see these characters on screen or in marketing can have lasting impacts on how they treat those groups of people, both good and bad. When representation is done right, it has the power to change people’s perceptions of each other. Parasocial Interactions, more commonly known as parasocial relationships, are the reason for this phenomenon. So, what’s the deal with parasocial relationships, and why are people talking about them more and more?
Representation in media has real-world consequences
The term Parasocial interaction (PSI) was first coined by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in 1956, describing the phenomenon where a person forms a type of one-sided psychological relationship with someone, typically a celebrity, media personality, or otherwise famous individual. We can see this phenomenon take off exponentially thanks to influencers and social media content creators, who lean into it to grow their dedicated following.
While some have taken parasocial relationships too far, there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence demonstrating how they can help people become more tolerant and accepting of others. While having face-to-face relationships is always ideal, a virtual parasocial representation is still better than nothing, according to Northwestern University Social Psychology professor Wendi Gardner.
Media that features Black, Latinxs, Asian, Native American, and Queer folks has the power to convince consumers of the inherent personhood of such individuals, mitigating potential biases in perception. TV Series such as The Fresh Prince of Belair, In Living Color, and many more can help viewers see beyond the veil of their own prejudices, opening the door for a more nuanced perception of what BIPOC people are like.
The same things happen with marketing content. When done correctly, diverse and inclusive campaigns have the power to further conversations about racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and more. Ads from brands like Essie and Gillette provide a great example of showcasing diverse people in a beautiful and humanizing way. On the other hand, some fall flat, such as the infamous Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner—a prime example of how NOT to approach social issues affecting BIPOC people.
For organizations in the nonprofit and higher education sector, remaining approachable to everyone is VITAL to fulfilling their mission. Everyone should view your brand as welcoming, empathetic, and understanding, regardless of who they are.
If you’re looking to start creating diverse and inclusive campaigns or looking to improve your strategies, consider these suggestions.
Helpful hints to consider when developing diverse and inclusive campaigns
- Keep it genuine. Avoid the cliche and kitsch: Much like the incredibly and poorly conceived Pepsi ad, representing a minority should be done in a way that speaks to that group. Are you talking about women’s issues? Bring a diverse cast of women to talk about them. Want to showcase the trials, tribulations, and racism that Black Americans face in the education system? Bring in Black educators and experts to talk about it. There doesn’t need to be overt sentimentality if you’re speaking from the heart, so keep it simple and genuine.
- Build a diverse team: While doing your research and having focus groups can help, nothing is better than having a diverse team to defer to for assistance. Their insight into their particular cultures and experiences is the best way to create an authentically diverse campaign. It’s also the right thing to do, plain and simple.
- Touch base with members of that group throughout the process to check for overall reception and to point out any lesser-known off-color comments (microaggressions): When creating a diverse ad, the last thing you want to do is come off as tone-deaf, or worse, to bring up racist stereotypes. A great example of how racism permeates society is viewing it as an iceberg. The top of that iceberg is comprised of overt demonstrations of discrimination and racism, while the other examples are less obvious but contribute to making racism that much harder to eradicate. Tropes like the Model Minority, the White Savior Complex, and others like it aren’t as dramatic or evident but contribute to perpetuating these systems of oppression. You might not be as in tune, but people who live through these experiences every day will be quick to spot them and let you know. Don’t get defensive or angry—APOLOGIZE and LISTEN to what they have to say. They are there to criticize and teach—you are there to listen and learn. That said, no group is a monolith. Make sure you’re pulling from a diverse group of people within the community you’re trying to highlight.
- These groups are incredibly diverse—EMBRACE IT: People are diverse, regardless of race, gender, or sexuality. For example, no two Latinx people are the same, so don’t try to flatten their community in order to keep things simple. People aren’t simple, so make that an integral part of whatever you’re creating. Intersectionality makes a HUGE difference in how people live through certain experiences. A poor Trans BIPOC has a very different experience than a wealthy, white Trans person. Other aspects like social class, being able-bodied, and so many other things can completely shift what a person’s life might be like. While it’s impossible to talk about ALL of them in any given campaign, acknowledging these intersections can provide further nuance to the conversation and provide further visibility to these minorities.
- Don’t just use them for marketing and social proof. STAND with them consistently, not just when injustices happen: Finally—and most importantly—is that your brand needs to speak up for BIPOC people, not just when horrible things happen. Make a commitment to stand by them consistently, or don’t do it at all.
Creating an inclusive campaign shouldn’t be an afterthought—it needs to be a primary goal. While there’s no definite guide on best practices, having a diverse team and doing your due diligence will help you create something honest, authentic, and well-thought-out.
Mónica Rodríguez-Pérez is a passionate writer, art historian, tech nerd, and book lover. She's worked with a variety of clients within the financial and wellness industries to create and execute successful content marketing strategies. Mónica loves to research, conceptualize, and write anything from blog posts to email campaigns and everything in between. In her free time, she's usually cuddling with her partner and her puppy Lily, roaming the halls of museums, or at her local bookstore surrounded by stacks of books.