The tricky balancing act of diversity: will you ever please everyone?

The Great British Bake off is back on our TVs again. The perfect comfort TV as the nights start to draw in. But guess what? Already it’s being criticised for being too ‘woke as seven of the twelve contestants represent diverse cultures and heritage. A bit ironic given the show has been pulled up by former contestants for not having diverse enough judges.

And then in a recent episode of Coronation Street, they had a scene completely executed in British Sign Language with no subtitles.  Judging by comments on Twitter, viewers were less than impressed:

“Corrie some subtitles would be helpful with this sign language pish”

“Slag me off as much as you want but I’m sick to death of this deaf shit in Coronation Street…where is the subtitles for people who do not know sign language”


And let’s not even mention the Sainsbury’s Christmas ad, which featured a black family and saw, in an unprecedented move, UK supermarkets stand together against the racist backlash.

All these examples highlight one thing – where diversity is concerned you can’t seem to do right for doing wrong. So, what is the answer?

Why do brands need to embrace diversity?

In the UK 14.4% of people are from ethnic minority backgrounds and 18% are disabled people.

Given these comparatively low numbers, you could be forgiven for thinking ‘why bother reflecting diversity’ when the majority of people are white and non-disabled or to phrase it in money terms – let’s just spend that amount of our marketing budget on being ‘inclusive’.

But is that what Coco-Cola thought when they launched their ground-breaking 1971 ad ‘ I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke’? Or Google when they introduced a diverse group of Google Pixel users who all had one thing in common – suicidal thoughts?  And while some of Benetton’s ads of the 1990s are pure shockvertising, they were the first to feature an interracial, lesbian family at a time when advertising shunned such depictions.

What all these brands did, in their own unique way, is to not only reflect the real world but also the changes happening in society around equality and representation. An approach which worked and saw Coke receive over 100,000 letters from people praising the commercial. Imagine if social media had existed then!

But the media has another important role – it has the power to shape the narrative. It’s about breaking down barriers, opening the dialogue and raising awareness. Some people might not have liked the sign language on Coronation Street, but it did make you realise what it must be like not to be able to understand what people are saying.

And ultimately, diversity matters to consumers. Yes, their numbers might be small, but they want to feel their experiences and opinions matter. They want to see people like them represented on screen.

And while that might feel like a big ask, research suggests that being inclusive has a positive impact on ROI – so why wouldn’t brands want to embrace it?

How do you stop diversity being tokenistic?

But getting inclusive marketing right isn’t easy. A few years back (sadly, not as many as you might imagine), it was normal for some companies to have an unwritten list of groups who had to appear in any marketing material. White, Black, Asian, Disabled, Male, Female, Homosexual. So a black, one-armed lesbian was ticking all the boxes for a change! (This was a few years ago, when trans wasn’t even on the radar, which shows how much society has moved on.)

Whilst the intention was no doubt good, diversity and inclusion should never be a box ticking exercise, something that many brands seem to forget in their eagerness to demonstrate diversity. The ‘one black friend’ approach, where ads show a single ethnic minority person in every group scene is sadly common and something that unsurprisingly annoys minorities.

The simple fact is, shoe-horning a mixed-race couple or LGBT people into an ad is just brands trying too hard to be inclusive. Inclusive marketing is like any good marketing – it should focus on the customer, what makes them unique and then use stories that those audiences can relate to.

It’s one of the reasons why the ad for Halifax works so well. It’s a people thing follows the lives of a number of residents on a typical British street. Yes, diverse groups are represented but it feels completely genuine. An example of inclusive marketing at its best.

Are diversity initiatives the way to go?

A few weeks ago Channel 4 devoted a whole day to showcase black talent both on and off screen with their Black to Front’ initiative. As well as re-imaging some of its biggest mainstream shows such as Hollyoaks and Gogglebox with an all-black cast, it also launched new programming by black talent.

Reviews were mixed. Some felt that it was tokenistic while others saw it as a resounding success.

But the bigger question is – why do we need it in the first place? And the answer is simple – because black people are under-represented on TV.

Unsurprisingly, people complained on Twitter that there weren’t any white faces – but how many times over the last 50 years have we watched TV and seen no black people. Look at Coronation Street – it only got it’s first black family in 2019!

As already mentioned, TV has a role to play in breaking down barriers and getting people talking. And while some have complained that Black to Front only lasted 24 hours, this type of initiative is a step in the right direction as only through raising awareness will things start to change. But it also served another important purpose – one some people might have missed completely – it gave other black people the chance to see what opportunities are open to them.

Will you ever be able to please everyone?

“Diverse marketing isn’t just a box you can tick. There are so many layers to diversity beyond gender or skin colour. It’s also about age. Geography. Socio-economic diversity. Relatable jobs. Abilities. Sexuality.” Lorraine Twohill, SVP of Global Marketing at Google

This quote sums up exactly why inclusive marketing is so complicated, and sadly

backlashes against deaf people on Coronation Street and black families in the Sainsbury’s ad suggest keeping everyone happy is probably nigh-on impossible.

But that doesn’t meant inclusion should ever be an afterthought. There might be no easy answer, but as the 2019 ban on harmful gender stereotyping in advertising shows, TV and brands have an important role in helping make those changes happen.

Maybe one day they will be able to show an all-black Gogglebox and nobody will even notice. Here’s hoping.