The Secret to Getting Advertising Right for Diverse Audiences, as Revealed by Three Ads That Hit the Mark: Macy’s, Mastercard and Nike

Large Group of Diverse Multiethnic Cheerful Concept stock photo

By Jon Evans, Chief Customer Officer, System1 

Diversity in advertising—both behind and in front of the camera—has been an industry issue which is finally coming to the fore with the understanding that it’s the “right” thing to do. For too long ads showed a version of America that failed to reflect the breadth, richness and variety of American life. But now, the commercials on American screens more closely mirror the nation’s diversity as well as its creativity. A good thing, of course—and something long overdue.

But comments or assertions that all of this investment in diversity is a feelgood exercise with no bottom-line impact are as damaging as they are unfounded and factually untrue. Because in reality, diverse advertising unites us such that inclusive ads by brands are almost always more appealing and more effective than the average, general market ad by those same brands. And the best diverse ads go further, creating a “diversity dividend” where they deliver even greater impact among the group they put in the spotlight.

We believe that the more positive and intense emotion an ad generates, the greater potential it has to drive long-term market share gains for a brand—well beyond what excess share of voice alone could deliver. A “diversity dividend” means that the ad has even higher potential with those customers.

Here’s an example of what this looks like in practice. Macy’s 2020 Christmas ad with BBDO, “In These Shoes,” tells a short story about a young Black girl on a mission to find the perfect present for her dad. She tries on her dad’s shoes and by magic finds herself walking around as her father, seeing the community and their neighbors as he does. After walking in her father’s shoes, she knows exactly what present he needs: socks.

It’s a charming ad which performed extremely strongly with the average audience. Viewers related to the father-daughter relationship and enjoyed the humor, magic and community spirit in the storyline—A holiday ad done well, so-to-speak. But when tested with Black audiences, it scored even higher. Which is to say that the ad was already doing its job, it just did it even better according to Black viewers.

To be fair, not every ad can achieve this kind of dividend. In some markets and with some demographics, visibility alone is enough to generate one because when you manage to see yourself on screen (and almost never do) you naturally experience an emotional response—the enthusiasm is inherently there. But even then advertisers must proactively go further toward making ads that not only explore but celebrate the authentic lives of diverse communities.

MasterCard’s ad “Spotlight,” for instance, which won a Cannes Lion this year stars a visually impaired woman middle-aged woman, recreating the world of sounds and looming objects she experiences for a sighted audience. It’s a powerful way of bringing the authentic experience of her disability to life for people who don’t share it.

“Spotlight” scored well among a broad cross-section of U.S. customers and also enjoyed a massive “diversity dividend,” among Americans with disabilities. The way Mastercard had painstakingly constructed an ad which felt authentic made the general public like the ad but viewers with disabilities absolutely loved it.

The absence of a diversity dividend means you got something wrong—either the creative or the tone or the messaging missed the mark somehow, leaving members of the diverse community less than thrilled. In layman’s terms, the ad didn’t authentically and accurately capture their lives or the lives of their community.

But a diversity dividend isn’t enough to save a spot, either—you still want to strike a chord with the general market and not alienate.

Nike’s “Legacy” ad bidding farewell to Serena Williams’ extraordinary tennis career is a great example of a commercial which has both general appeal and hits harder among a specific group. While pretty much everybody can  celebrate the life of an exceptional athlete and be inspired by her words, for Black women specifically, Serena’s struggles and triumphs have an even stronger impact. It’s an example of an ad which performed excellently in general but still created maximum joy and excitement among a narrower target group.

So, what’s the lesson learned from three top brands? Namely, that advertising which tells real, inclusive stories well will always have a solid chance of going that extra mile and winning a “diversity dividend” too. There are two key things to get right, however.

The first is not to neglect the wider audience. Ads need to entertain for commercial gain, and inclusivity isn’t entertaining by itself. You need a baseline of positive response from the wider population for “diversity dividends” to build upon. The second step is to make sure you’re telling a story that feels recognizable and rooted in genuine experience. That doesn’t have to be ordinary experience, either, as the Serena Williams ad shows it can be unique and inspirational. But it should have the ring of truth to it like the life shown in “Spotlight.”

Get that combination of entertainment and authenticity right and you’ll maximize the potential of your diverse ads among the target community and among every other American who sees them.