Crossing Boundaries in Advertising

I didn’t expect the outcome we received when I scheduled a session on diversity in advertising for the June 17 Diversity Insights Breakfast. I had hoped, of course, for an impact—and we got it, but it was a reaction from participants I hadn’t expected.

We had an impressive lineup of brands and presenters, all of whom challenged common wisdom by representing voices unheard and faces unseen in advertising, including those with disabilities, the LGBT community and people of many races and ethnicities. The companies showcased included Gap, Wells Fargo, Honey Maid (Mondelez) and Guinness. Presenters came from advertising agencies BBDO, Peterson Milla Hooks, Padillacrt (with client Wells Fargo). There was a lot of talent and expertise in front of the room and every presenter delivered everything I could have hoped for. It was truly seamless even though we had only all spoken once by phone a few days before and met face-to-face only that morning.

It was a full house—oversold, in fact—and full of people I hadn’t seen before. We clearly had hit on a topic of interest.

We scheduled two hours for the session, but went quite a bit over that time with no one getting ready to leave until I called it by standing up to thank everyone for attending.

These are all great outcomes and all hoped for in a perfect world, which apparently it was that morning. The outcome I didn’t expect was the calls for boxes of Kleenex.

Even with all the months of planning with lead presenter Tari Hartman Squire of EIN SOF Communications, I didn’t anticipate how emotionally moving the commercials we screened were going to be. After each was shown you could see tears running down people’s faces and hear snuffling noses all around. And people asking for Kleenex. But why?

Some in the audience were seasoned diversity practitioners while others were advertising executives with long and successful careers. Wouldn’t they be inured to the emotion of these messages? Apparently, the strength of the human spirit, the push to overcome obstacles, the connection to a cause even if not your own—all demonstrated in ways both big and small by these commercials—is more powerful than years of experience and lots of expertise.

As I summed up at the event: this is about the power of the media to socialize difference and bring us together into communities not based on the life situations we share – many in the room did not share these experiences – but on our most common experience, which is humanity. So kudos to the companies and agencies who chose the difficult route, who went out on a limb and showed us the real faces of America even when not everyone is comfortable seeing them on screen. Whether they intended to be so or not, they are great advocates and allies for those of us working in diversity and inclusion and for all the people we represent.