White Men, “Spicy Latinas”

White men run the advertising world in this country. And people – some of whom are white – are calling it out as a problem. Witness the recent “Open Letter to the AAF on the Ridiculousness of All-Male, All-White Juries.” Even though there’s the 50/50 Initiative sponsored by the Art Directors Club to get gender balance in the creative industries, there’s not a lot of pressure to get better gender balance. (And “gender” isn’t a binary, so balance doesn’t mean just male/female. Or hetero only, if we want to talk about that.) Or racial balance, for that matter. Check 2016 Oscar nominees. Or the award-winning Leo Burnett PR team. All white, from what the photo shows. Congrats!

Here’s why, from my research and consumer insight perspective, it matters. (And it matters even more from my perspective as a human being who cares about respecting and valuing all people from a moral, ethical, and justice perspective.) If you indeed want to connect with consumers, and particularly with younger people who really really do think it’s no biggie to show trans people in ads and who, in fact, find it rather odd that all the smart ones in ads are white men, you need to put more different people in the ads, and think about the roles you put them in.

Nothing apparently feels wrong to white men about casting and seeing white men in the ads  (except in homemaker roles, where it’s women). Occasionally, though, they get super-hip and courageous and show a homemaker-dad. And nothing feels wrong to the white men (and white women who get involved on occasion) to do ads showing “diversity” that means there’s a bunch of white people/families, and one person or family of color. Would it kill ya to show diversity by having four families of color, and one white family? Would it kill the brand?

Which leads me straight into stereotypes. I see, and work with, far too many ads where the Latinas (if they’re utilized) are “spicy” or else serving dinner to “mi hijo” after working a full day as a hotel maid. (Really.) Or there are two gay guys in the ad, at least one of whom is invariably hugely into fashion.

Who are you connecting with in these ads? The people who fall into these groups? Well yes, to an extent. You get points for even including someone who’s gay or Latina. But many in those groups will tell you, if they’re being honest, that it’s only a small step forward. To be acknowledged is good, but to be portrayed as such a loaded stereotype diminishes the good feelings. But they don’t usually tell you.

Which takes me back to the “who’s in charge” point. It can be very difficult for people in underrepresented groups (like women, LGBTQ, blacks, Latinos etc.) who do sometimes show up in ad agencies and PR agencies, to speak up to their white men bosses and object. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to say “Good on you for including Latinos in the ad, but why do they only show up as parents of huge families?” Or, “weren’t there any non-white people who showed up at the casting session who could have been the company spokesperson?”  Or, “Why does the gay man have to be the one to make the point about the design of the room? Couldn’t the ‘spicy Latina’ do it?”

Consumers in focus groups will seldom tell you they’re offended by how people are portrayed in ads. And if they do speak out, their comments are often dismissed or minimized by those who hear them. The same dynamic occurs in our workplaces. And the dynamic will not change, and certainly not change quickly enough, so long as the powers that be, who judge the work and judge and promote and fire the workers, are white men.

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