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The Influencers

The Positive Impact of Advertising on Culture 

The D&I Collective @ VCCP's Sonia Gilchrist and Xi Chen reflect on the impact of social media around advertising and how it can bring a positive impact on culture

The Positive Impact of Advertising on Culture 

Sonia Gilchrist and Xi Chen, The D&I Collective @ VCCP delve into the social impacts of advertising after Sainsbury's 2020 Christmas campaign received backlash across social media channels. 


When we sat down to discuss writing this article, we’d seen one or two posts on our social feeds about the backlash Sainsbury’s were facing following the launch of one of their Christmas TV ads that feature an all Black British family. Skip forwards four hours and the news is, quite rightly, everywhere - in leading newspapers, in emails around the agency and in our Whatsapps from shocked friends and family. But for many of us, we weren’t surprised. 

Why? Well, the level of racists comments aimed at brands on social media has only increased over the past year and, in the last three months alone, we’ve seen the same types of attacks against big brands such as Argos, Nationwide and The National Trust. They are targeted for featuring Black talent in their ads, or in the case of The National Trust, for wanting to recognise the links their venues have to slavery. The general narrative coming from these ‘racist tweeters’? A belief that these brands don’t represent them and therefore are ‘anti-British’ or ‘virtue signalling’. 

But this narrative couldn’t be more wrong. The actual facts show that representation in advertising does not reflect the true diversity of the UK. In a study by Lloyds Banking Group (Nov 2018), just 7% of ads showed people from the BAME community as the sole, or main protagonist - in comparison, the estimated proportion of BAME individuals in the UK is 13%. Although this has been improving more recently, there’s still a long way to go.

Now, please don’t mistake what we’re saying. We know casting isn’t the solution to all of our industry’s D&I issues - there are multiple facets to this - but what we do know is that the work we put out into the world has the power to impact culture and shift perceptions. Through advertising, we can get words added into the Oxford English Dictionary (‘simples’) and we can reclaim derogatory language, garnering recognition from the UN (Like a Girl). Whilst race and racism may feel like a much bigger challenge, we genuinely believe the change can happen faster with our industry at the heart of it. 

And by the way, it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. We know from Channel 4’s Diversity Study that, out of 1,000 diverse people surveyed, the majority (64% BAME, 49% white) would feel more positively towards brands that showcase different cultures in their ads. And, in July 2020, CapGemini research showed that ‘79% of consumers are changing their purchase preferences based on social responsibility, inclusiveness, or environmental impact shown by a brand’. 

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But we know that too many people who claim to be shocked by these events, who join in the conversations, and think we need to do more, don’t actually try and take action. We can't let this task fall upon the shoulders of a small group, in the same way that so many D&I initiatives in agencies do - this is a chance for every one of us to take responsibility. We all have a voice within the businesses we work for and the ability to impact the work we make. There are already brands out there making positive waves and we can all follow in their steps. So what do we ask? Take your words of support, your outrage towards racist behaviour and channel them into actions that drive real change in our culture. 


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