Advertising’s Little White Secret

Research on the lack of diversity in creative departments becomes ever more relevant in our advertising landscape

When Dr. Jean Grow looks inside the world of advertising, she sees important creative voices missing. “The lack of diversity and the small number of people of color in advertising management is shocking,” says Grow, chair and professor of strategic communication.

And while women have been shown to make 80 percent of consumer buying decisions, there’s a “horrific scarcity of women in creative departments,” she adds. It’s only 20 percent, a figure she knows from tabulating it with former graduate assistant Tony Deng as part of a study that used Red Books, an industry database.

She cites the controversial Pepsi commercial — that drew protests and an apology because it seemed to trivialize the Black Lives Matter movement — as a symptom of this lack of diversity.

“Probably 15 to 20 people passed on that ad, and it didn’t occur to anyone that there would be blowback? Something is terribly wrong,” she says.

Dr. Grow has been at Marquette for 17 years.

Dove recently came out with an advertisement that received similar backlash. The ad, released on the company’s Facebook page and then subsequently removed, shows a black woman who, when she reaches down and lifts up her shirt to take it off, becomes a white woman. Dr. Grow believes this was a major brand misstep for Dove.

“Showing Black women transformed into light Brown or White women is appalling,” she says. Grow says she will bet her retirement account on the fact there were no people of color in the decision-making process nor were there any present as this went up the decision-making food chain. She adds that “Women and people of color are invisible in advertising management.”

Twitter user Hasdi Bravo managed to capture the video before it was taken down.

While there’s little research on the lack of women in creative roles, there’s even less on diversity issues. Grow is working to change that. With a faculty fellowship from Marquette’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, she’s traveling to Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami to conduct ethnographic research and interviews within multicultural ad agencies and general market agencies. Although the industry won’t release data, Grow estimates that advertising agencies employ less than five percent of people of color, and even then, “You’ll find them largely working in the multicultural agencies, not the general market shops.”

With support from the grant, she’s also developing a new class on multicultural advertising and public relations. It will include student field trips to diverse communities for discussions on messaging and perceptions, she says.

This approach fits a teacher-scholar who’s made a career of searching often unexplored places and communities for insights on advertising and
 its role in people’s lives.Throughout her career, Grow has traveled widely, including to Europe, Asia and Mexico. She takes students on popular Global Brand Tracking program trips to track how Brits and Czechs relate to products and how advertising reflects those relationships. Because of her global perspective, Grow was invited to travel to Hong Kong this year to give the keynote at the Research Institute for Digital Culture and Humanities conference.

Whether addressing creativity or diversity, here or abroad, Grow calls for confronting systemic limitations that keep advertising hiring so homogeneous. This results in “a lack of diversity in creative thought,” she argues. “These limitations are not just bad for creative women and people of color; they are bad for business.”

Adapted from Marquette’s 2017 Diederich College of Communication Magazine.