Representation of the “Other” in Advertising.
When I was 9 years old I moved to Sedona, Arizona. My father is Somali and at the time his family had been placed as refugees in Phoenix so we moved to AZ to be closer to them, leaving the Armenian community in Massachusetts that my mom had grown up in.
If you want to talk about a lack of seeing yourself reflected, think about being an Armenian/Somali Muslim preteen girl in a small Arizona town. Growing up, I was always “other” because the only races represented in my school were white people and Mexicans. We had maybe two LGBT students and their lives were far harder than mine.
One time a friend told me that the thing she liked about me was that I was so “myself” and didn’t care what other people think. I told her that this was no feat, considering that I grew up somewhere that I couldn’t fit in even if I had wanted to. Nobody would have me, and I believe that as a teenager I would’ve tried more desperately to fit in if I thought that I wasn’t so “other” as to make that an impossible task.
Now I work in advertising as a copywriter. I am the only female minority writer I have ever met; I have never worked for a female writer and I’ve only ever worked with or under 3 non-hetero normative people. And don’t get me started on the lack of diversity on the side of our clients.
While there have been an institutional shifts in advertising over the last few years to make ads in the U.S. more diverse, there’s a problem in representing diversity when it’s decided upon by mostly non-diverse people. This leads us to issues where trying to make our ads more representative becomes a troubling game of checking boxes and meeting quotas instead of actually having the voices and faces that we want to represent drive the storytelling.
Once, I was told by a white client that a female casting choice I had presented for a commercial we were about to shoot was “not black” enough. As a mixed race woman I found this comment unacceptable. I made a case at my job about how comments like this during the casting process reveal prejudices. Worse, I said, casting for quotas or to tick boxes (instead of by looking beyond the surface identity of a person to the story we are telling) works against the ostensibly good intentions of casting for diversity in order to represent America as it is now. I was surprised to find that this was the first time many people at my work had engaged in a meaningful conversation about what it means to decide how to represent communities that we aren’t a part of.
I think the conversation was good and we are starting to make some steps to move away from this “box checking” approach in commercial casting. However, until the “other” is represented more robustly on the side of the people making the ads and the clients asking for them we will continue to have this problem.
So when you watch commercials and don’t see yourself reflected I would urge people to start writing to the brands and demanding that they start talking to you in a more authentic way. Brands will listen to customers and as a result we as advertisers will be forced to make a meaningful change, both in our hiring practices as well as our casting.