Adland’s search for equality misses the target in Brexit Britain

By Archie Heaton

London’s liberal bubble was well and truly popped last week when those working in advertising shockingly discovered that the British people had voted for Boris Johnson. To make matters worse, Shoreditch was equally perplexed to find out that those who’d voted to Leave the European Union haven’t changed their political views, even after three years of repeatedly being told they were stupid. Confusing times indeed.

But, while the bearded bar workers and hot yoga teachers of the nation’s capital can simply look the other way and pretend none of this is happening, adland cannot. Because the industry’s job is to understand the average person in this country, to translate their mood for clients and to communicate with them. And recently, we’ve not been doing this very well. In fact, despite our obsession with empathy, we’ve done what presumably is now referred to as a Jeremy Corbyn – becoming chronically disconnected from Britain’s public consciousness.

For example, as bizarre as it may sound to those living within the M25, the average Brit is far more concerned about mass immigration than they are about gender equality. Seriously. I don’t say this to offend, and I’m not saying that gender equality isn’t important, but it is simply a fact. Only 55 per cent of Briton’s have even heard of the #MeToo movement, while 57.6 per cent want to see a reduction in the number of immigrants entering the country.

Yet despite these cold hard facts the industry continues to see only what it wants, and a peculiar consensus appears to have emerged; one where acknowledging and discussing consumers’ most deep-rooted frustrations and beliefs is totally out of the question. We are spending more of our time and money grouping and hyper-targeting consumers at an increasingly micro-level and yet, when 52 per cent of the population helpfully decided to group themselves for us, we pretend not to have seen.

While cultural shifts around sexuality and gender identity continue to inspire a slew of campaigns, far deeper trends such as nationalism are repeatedly overlooked. Carling’s ‘Made Local’ spot (above) was the exception that proves the rule, perversely standing out as one of only a few brands that decided to adjust their positioning in light of the referendum result.

Presumably this is largely a symptom of advertising’s narrow definition of equality. While huge and important strides have been made in increasing the ethnic and gender diversity of adland workplaces, no one seems fazed by the extraordinary political and class divide in the industry. In 2018, according to the IPA, 13.8 per cent of ad industry employees identified as BAME (Black, Asian, Asian and minority ethnic), mirroring the UK’s population almost exactly. In addition, advertising currently employees far more women than men (albeit not in enough senior positions.)

However, research this summer showed that a whopping 44 per cent of the industry see themselves as left-leaning, compared to just 23 per cent of the overall population, and the statistics around working-classes representation are even more dire. Yet, despite the fact that equality of class and political affiliation is worse than other forms of inequality, the IPA’s ‘diversity’ page makes no mention of either, focusing entirely on gender and ethnicity.

This is a red flag and highlights that we have a real problem. As an industry we no longer understand the average person in this country, in part because we do not hire them. It is almost certainly making our campaigns less effective and our insights less accurate. As storytellers, we are increasingly talking to an audience we cannot see, and this makes our messaging less potent. I honestly believe this lack of empathy – true empathy for the beliefs, struggles and feelings of the men and women of this country – is a threat to us all, and the demise of Labour last week offered an insight into the risk of mass group think. So, let’s wake up and smell the coffee – not an almond milk macchiato, but proper coffee – before it’s too late.

Archie Heaton is a brand consultant.

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