Because, in the end, we are changed by what we see. Just as we are changed when we are seen.

In early 2019, Trevor McDonald spoke these words in a campaign highlighting moments from ITV’s history that influenced British Culture. Changing or the shaping of culture is at the heart of what many ad agencies claim as their mission for clients. This isn’t altruism on their part; the purpose of advertising is to sell their clients’ products. But can advertising also be a force for good in speeding up positive societal change? And can it still deliver growth for clients while doing so?

Over the last couple of years there has been a focus on diversity in advertising. Of all the areas of inclusion, gender equality is the one that has had most time and effort spent on it in 2019. From empowering women to detoxifying men, it has occupied much of the advertising space on our screens. Which is just as well, given the data from our Global Trends Survey shows three-quarters of people in the UK do not agree that the role of women in society is to be good mothers and wives; the same number of people agree that men now have greater responsibility for the home and childcare than ever before.

Cutting-edge marketing

But you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. This holds true for advertising. 2019 kicked off with the ‘We Believe: The Best Men Can Be’ ad from Gillette, which took a firm stance on the need for a modern definition of what it means to be a man. Unsurprisingly, it had a big impact. Within days it had more than one million dislikes on the brand’s official YouTube channel, while our analysis of social media sentiment showed 36% negative reactions versus just 16% positive.79

However, when we tested the ad among a broad sample of the US population, we also saw that the controversy had driven long-term desire for the brand. This positive appreciation of a brand trying to change culture for good has prevailed, with Gillette’s CEO, Gary Coombe claiming it as a commercial success, particularly with its target audience of millennial men.80

That’s why Dad’s gone to Iceland, too

There is now additional regulatory pressure for brands, too. As mentioned in Imogen’s earlier article (see page 50) the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rules introduced in June 2019 mean adverts “depicting gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence” are banned. VW and Philadelphia are two brands who have already fallen foul of this new stricture, for presenting men as more adventurous than women, and depicting men as hapless dads.81

While sexism is slowly being attacked by positive portrayals, there is another ism that persists in advertising – ageism. It’s not just the portrayal of all over-50s as one amorphous group, but the lazy targeting that takes you in your early 40s from constant pregnancy test ads on YouTube, straight into banner ads online for stairlifts by the time you are 50. Given Europe’s over-50s would be the third-richest country on earth if they were a sovereign nation – and have lots of years left in them to spend it, they should be a prime, well-understood target for both marketers and agencies. So, why no dice?
Part of the reason is clearly the lack of representation and familiarity of this group within agencies and clients. With just 6% of ad agency people over 50 years old82 versus 37% in the general population, there is an immediate problem with visibility. On top of this, there remains an obsession with youth and a tacit but outdated belief that, if you get them young, you shape their relationship with the brand forever. All of which means that there is less time and energy expended on understanding the disparate lives and needs of the over-50s.

While of course you don’t need to be over-50 to come up with a marketing plan or write an ad for this audience, you do need to have empathy and knowledge to do it well. The signs are there that if a brand makes the effort it will be rewarded, with 88% agreeing that brands should focus on needs and interests, not age.83

Advertising will continue to shape our culture – hopefully for the benefit of both brands and society. To do this, agencies and marketers still need to make real effort to see people not only for who they are, but for who they could be. In short, our advice is play to interests, values and aspirations, not demographics.