More science proving that diversity in advertising is good for business

New Canadian research shows that white consumers actually appreciate diversity in advertising more than BIPOC consumers, a finding the study’s authors say should allay any lingering marketer reluctance to cast more people of colour in their advertising.

The research used neuromarketing technology to measure the unconscious reactions of consumers to a series of ads featuring BIPOC talent. Measurements of viewer brainwave activity revealed that the ads actually resonated more with white viewers than non-white viewers.

“I can say without a doubt, with data to prove it, that telling stories that involve non-Caucasian people in Canada has no negative impact on Caucasian audiences,” said the study’s lead researcher, Chasson Gracie, in an overview of the research. “In fact, they tend to react even more positively to these spots.”

In an interview with The Message, Gracie, director of insights and analytics at John St., said that the stubborn problem of BIPOC under-representation in advertising stems less from prejudice and overt racism, and more from uncertainty and fear about the implications of putting more BIPOC talent in front of the camera.

“They don’t know what’s going to happen to their brand if people start seeing people who are non-white Canadians appearing in their [advertising]. To me that’s really the bigger issue,” he said.

Previous research has shown there is no downside to increased diversity. However, much of that research is based on survey data that can be considered flawed and susceptible to social desirability bias, he said. When you ask people how they feel about something like representation in advertising, he explained, they may say what they think is right rather than how they really feel.

To correct for that, Gracie and his John St. colleague Josh Richards worked with neuromarketing firm Brainsights to conduct the new study. The Toronto-based research business uses electroencephalography to measure unconscious brain wave data. Brainsights can track consumer engagement by measuring their attention levels, emotional connection, and what they encode to memory.

They screened ads for Ford, Black & Abroad, IKEA, Real Canadian Superstore and Goldfish Crackers, and added existing Brainsights data from an Air Canada spot evaluated by both white and non-white audiences.

The data consistently showed that ads with more diverse talent performed better among white viewers than non-white viewers, said Gracie (see the second-by-second persuasiveness chart for Black & Abroad’s “Go Back to Africa” ad below).

“A spot where there are people of colour telling the story of people of colour actually over-performs against the norm,” he said. In part, it may be simply down to pattern interruption for people accustomed to seeing mostly white talent in their ads. “If you’re not used to seeing that, and that interrupts your pattern, it’s not a surprise that it would be a good thing.”

However, while the research found there was no negative impact from BIPOC casting, it also showed the ways consumers respond differently to the ads on a second-by-second basis: certain lines resonated more with white viewers than BIPOC in some cases, for example, while different visuals elicited stronger reactions from BIPOC viewers than white viewers (those differences are also noticeable in the Black & Abroad chart).

It’s a good reminder that connecting with BIPOC audiences isn’t just about the talent in front of the camera, it’s about the people behind the camera too, said Gracie. “We really need to think about what are we showing visually, what is that copy, how will it resonate with different audiences.”

Even when trying to do a “general market” ad intended for mass audiences, if the content of the ad is shaped too much by the lived experiences of the creative teams and the rest of the talent behind the camera, it may not resonate with all viewers as intended.

“The way they write it, the way they do the art direction, it’s going to be very specific and it might not resonate with everybody,” said Gracie.

In a review of their findings, the study’s authors provided six ways to make advertising more diverse and effective:  

  1. Take a pause before writing a creative brief: There tends to be a rush to take any data that is easily accessible. Make sure your data truly represents the audience for which you are aiming. If your audience is 25% Black and Indigenous, it is not possible to achieve that if your sample plan (and quotas) only focuses on age, gender and region.
  2. Add a diversity and inclusion lens to creative briefs: It forces strategists to consider potential positive or adverse impacts on non-Caucasians before final creative ideas.
  3. During creative ideation, make sure your references (e.g. moodboards, TV shows, podcasts, etc.) reflect your audiences and not the life of the agency team. Implicit bias and microaggressions tends to influence this stage.
  4. Better casting: “Open casting” is most times code for hiring actors/actresses who are Caucasian. There is no evidence to justify this approach; in fact, it would be better for brands to consider more non-Caucasian audiences and stories.
  5. When measuring audience responses to creative, it is beneficial to measure the subconscious when possible. A subconscious method for this research confirmed, without bias, earlier survey research. Moreover, it provided a deeper understanding of what happened second by second to see when visual and aural cues affect audiences differently.
  6. Consider using Cross-Cultural Marketing, an approach that is grounded in subcultural insights and nuances to then arrive at universal human truths with bottom-up thinking.
David Brown