Jane Austin at Cannes: even with all the talk of purpose, progress is screeching to a halt

It’s the little things like a looming recession, soaring inflation and (for Brits anyway) Boris Johnson in charge that make you look to future with a sense of abject dread.

Not wanting to send you further into a depressive spiral, but research unveiled at Cannes further highlighted how progress is continuing to screech to halt on major societal issues such as gender equality.

A global report from UN Women and the Unstereotype Alliance revealed alarming attitudes towards domestic violence. A staggering 19% of people said they believe there were “acceptable circumstances” for someone to hit their spouse or partner, a 2% rise since 2018, according to the research.

And media and the ad industry has a big role to play in this. Most people surveyed for the report agreed that men and women continue to be portrayed in traditional gender roles in media.

So even though the industry has said it is quitting the stereotypes, they continue to exist. Also, when it comes to DE&I, we’re seeing too many advertisers relying on tokenistic box-ticking. Often not much thought goes into representation beyond merely upping the numbers of people from different racial backgrounds or LGBTQ+ people in ads. More representation in advertising is desperately needed, but it needs to go deeper than that.

Superficial attempts at diversity and inclusivity have earned the industry accusations of blatant opportunism – and not just from reactionary pundits like author Lionel Shriver. Brands shamelessly cashing in on Juneteenth have received a public backlash and been called tone deaf by Amara Enyia, a public policy expert for the Movement for Black Lives. Meanwhile Samsung’s “Night Owls” campaign depicting a woman heading out for a run at 2am, was roundly criticised for its insensitivity to women’s safety.

The industry is trying to improve but the continued cultural appropriation, insensitivity, and lack of intersectionality shows that marketers are failing and need to do better. There will be endless discussion around purpose this week, but the blind pursuit of purpose without the necessary expertise, awareness and depth of understanding to truly represent and respect people and communities is not just meaningless, it’s harmful.

Jane Austin is Founder of Persuasion Communications.
Photograph: Bronac McNeill

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