Inside IKEA’s ‘Magic Man’ casting decision

Canada has a total visible minority population of 7.7 million people, 1.57 of which are Chinese Canadians. In large urban markets, we know that Chinese representation is significantly higher than the country as a whole.

We Canadians pride ourselves on the increasingly colourful face of the country, yet it still seems noteworthy when a national advertiser like IKEA casts a Chinese family in a Christmas ad. But should it?

The Message spoke with a number of multicultural marketing experts. All agreed that putting racial and ethnic diversity front and centre in Canadian advertising requires a deliberate effort to break with tradition. “Advertising is produced like a lot of other cultural products, according to routines that have been successful in the past,” said University of Toronto sociologist Shyon Baumann.  “It takes a conscious choice to deviate from routines.”

That was the case at IKEA. Chief marketing officer Lauren MacDonald said the company has made a “conscious effort” to reflect the diversity of Canada’s population in its advertising, whether that’s featuring same-sex couples, new Canadians or single-parent households.

“Magic Man,” she said, was designed to reflect not just the country’s ethnic diversity, but the growing trend of multi-generational families living together under one roof.

According to one report, there were more than 404,000 multi-generation households in Canada (defined as housing three or more generations) in Canada in 2016. Multi-generational households are the fastest-growing household type in Canada, growing 37.5% between the 2011 and 2016 Census.

“Magic Man is a continuation of reflecting the diversity of both living situations and people in Canada with a multi-generational Asian family,” said MacDonald.

In a 2014 study of Canadian advertising, Baumann and his colleague Loretta Ho concluded that racial bias is “entrenched” in Canadian TV advertising, with visible minorities both underrepresented and misrepresented. They found that while black people were not underrepresented relative to their percentage of the total population, the same wasn’t true for those of South Asian and East Asian heritage. The study found that white people appeared in 87% of commercials, despite comprising just 80% of the population.

Bauman hasn’t updated his racial bias study since 2014, but says that recent American data suggests that Asian Americans—and other racial groups—continue to appear “very infrequently” in TV commercials.

Here’s what our other multicultural experts had to say:

  • Bobby Sahni, partner and co-founder of Toronto-based Ethnicity Multicultural Marketing + Advertising, praised IKEA not just for casting a Chinese family but for how the family was portrayed. “Often when diverse casts are used in mainstream media, they follow stereotypical patterns instead of showcasing them as regular Canadians with certain unique preferences/cultural nuances,” says Sahni.


  • Gavin Barrett, founder, owner and chief creative officer of Barrett and Welsh, said that marketing is starting to better represent the cultural makeup of the cities that comprise the bulk of Canada’s population, although the industry as a whole continues to lag behind. “I still hear excuses for how difficult it is to cast visible minorities, or indigenous peoples or talent with disabilities when I know this is patently untrue.”


  • Ishan Ghosh, Barrett and Welsh CEO, said, “The IKEA ad does make me, as someone not born in Canada, happy.” But on the whole, Canadian marketers need to a better job of engaging diverse audiences as opposed to just representing them, he said. “Do not become complacent that by representing minorities your job of inclusion is done. It makes your audience feel good about being recognized but there is really no engagement with the brand until they can recognize that they are being spoken to.” —Chris Powell, with files from David Brown


David Brown