Less Excuses. More Diversity in Advertising.

The Hundred Million Dollar Opportunity of Inclusive Advertising

Back in 2013, Ogilvy New York found that US brands that failed to meaningfully appeal to Black, Hispanic and Asian audiences were forgoing hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue. If these brands had only found a way to connect with non-Caucasian consumers, for example through diverse casting and storytelling in their advertising, they would have been more lucratively rewarded [see figure 1].

Figure 1 - Sonic Brand Power Score By Ethnicity

WhiteBlackHispanicAsianValued at$321 Million CAD4.3%4.0%3.6%2.9%

Millward Brown, Ogilvy (2013) "Brand Cross Cultural Index"

We believe the same dynamics to be in effect in Canada: connect with more of our diverse nation and maximize financial returns.

And indeed, previous survey research confirms that diverse representation in advertising has only positive impacts on consumers [see figure 2] – Caucasians and non-Caucasians alike.

Figure 2 - Overall Attitude Towards Advertisement

4.483.575.023.413.412.873.513.32Non-CaucasianLow Ethnic IdentityHigh Ethnic IdentityLow Ethnic IdentityCaucasianHigh Ethnic Identityattitude toward Caucasian Lead Adsattitude toward Non-Caucasian Lead Ads

Appiah, Osei (2001) Journal of Advertising Research vol. 41

And we also know that based upon our own research of conscious responses, people who are non-Caucasian are more likely to state they are impacted by advertising [see figure 3].

Figure 3 - Agreed Portion Impacted by Advertising


john st. Insights and Analytics Dept./Angus Reid Omnibus Study Aug 14 – 16, 2019

Busting the Unconscious Bias Barriers

So, any residual reluctance to employ diverse and inclusive talent and messaging in advertising appears to be the result of factors outside of what the data say.

We know that one of those factors is a skepticism of survey-based research for this kind of problem. Like many explicit-response methodologies, survey responses are subject to social desirability bias. In questions related to race and representation in advertising, as in other walks of life, no one wants to be seen as a racist, and they are likely to respond in a manner that’s socially desirable (ie, non-racist).

This is a fair point, but unfortunately, it has provided cover for inaction for those who continue to resist diversity in advertising, either because of their own biases or the belief that it would upset their core customer (ie, Caucasian native-born customer).

So, we needed a research method that busted these biases for Canadian advertisers, giving them the confidence that they need to overcome any hurdles to diverse and inclusive advertising.

To do so, we partnered with Brainsights, a consumer neuroscience technology and data company based in Toronto.

Brainsights collects unconscious brain wave data with electroencephalography (EEG) - brain wave readers. They use this technology on ads, entertainment and experiences to track what motivates, persuades and engages consumers by measuring theirs attention levels, their levels of emotional connection, and what they encode to memory.

Our objective was to use Brainsights’ technology to understand how ads featuring prominent non-Caucasian talent performed in the unconscious minds of Caucasian and non-Caucasian audiences.

We tested ads from a range of categories, and which featured a multitude of BIPOC (Black, Indiegnous and People of Colour) talent. This included both Canadian and non-Canadian brands, with ads created for this market and from outside of it.

The ads from Ford, Black & Abroad, IKEA, Real Canadian Superstore and Goldfish Crackers, were screened in Toronto across TV, Laptop and Mobile devices for Caucasian (n=79) and Non-Caucasian (n=155) audiences (data collected in September 2020). We also analyzed an Air Canada spot which was tested in Toronto, Vancouver and Montréal (English-speaking audience only) against Caucasian (n=144) and Non-Caucasian (n=154) audiences watching the spot on TV and Mobile devices (data collected in October 2019). 

Analyzing the unconscious responses of Caucasian and non-Caucasian consumers, we found the following:

1. Considerable upside to casting BIPOC talent.

  • Not only is there no apparent risk to casting BIPOC talent, there appears to be greater potential benefit:

  • The average performance of Brainsights’ neurometrics of Persuasiveness, Attention, Connection and Encoding metrics shows these ads were higher amongst Caucasian consumers vs Non-Caucasian consumers.  

These are indexed scores based on benchmark values of Attention, Connection, Encoding and Persuasiveness.

2. An understanding of cross-cultural nuance is essential

  • While overall ad performance across Caucasian/non-Caucasian audiences suffers no negative impact from casting BIPOC talent, the underlying drivers of performance are different for each segment.

  • Second-by-second response analysis for each audience segment across each metric shows few similarities between what engaged and persuaded Caucasians and non-Caucasians. This is to be expected: ethnicity, race and culture can define a large part of one's identity and how one perceives the world, manifesting in what our subconscious minds pay attention to, resonate with and encode to memory.  

  • And while this may make inclusive advertising seem like a moving target, a pursuit of an ever-elusive ideal that can never truly be cracked, we see it meaning something different. That diversity in front of the camera will only go so far; we need diversity behind the camera, too. That inclusive advertising requires diversity in perspectives born out of ethnic, racial and cultural differences and reflected in writing and directing - in addition to casting - to ensure we are representing and telling the stories that connect with increasingly diverse audiences.

  • For example, if we look at "Introducing the New 2020 Ford Escape", at around the 23 second mark, we notice a substantial difference in the experience of Caucasian and Non-Caucasian audiences. This could be because of the swift change in content.

  • Also, as we examine Air Canada’s "Travel Like a Canadian", we notice a very different reaction to the actual copy of the ad between the 60 second and 70 second marks when cutting the data by Caucasian and Non-Caucasian audiences. This is likely due to specific meaning in each line of copy that may play differently based upon one’s background.

Note - You'll need to click "x" on the more videos (thanks Google).

Scores in the second-by-second graph are Persuasiveness metrics for each audience segment

6 Ways to Make your Advertising more Inclusive - and Effective

“While it may be a worry to some brand directors and managers to cast non-Caucasian talent, I can say without a doubt, with data to prove it, that telling stories that involve non-Caucasian people in Canada has no negative impact on Caucasian audiences; in fact, they tend to react even more positively to these spots” says Chasson Gracie, lead researcher on the study. Chasson is Director of Insights and Analytics at john st. and co-lead of Roots Canada, WPP’s diversity, equity and inclusion network.

So, what does this mean for the best and the brightest in the world of brand marketing and design? We have five key suggestions in order to better your creative output: 

  1. Take a pause before writing a creative brief – There tends to be a rush to construct a creative brief and just take any data that are easily accessible. Not all data are equal, and it is necessary for a brand director/manager and agency strategist to make sure the data they are receiving to make decisions truly represents the audience for which they are aiming. So, for example, if your audience is 25% Black and Indigenous, it is not possible to achieve that if your sample plan (and quotas) only focuses on age, gender and region.

  2. Add a diversity and inclusion lens to creative briefs – By adding this lens, it forces a strategist to consider potential positive or adverse impact on non-Caucasians before making it into final creative ideas (if you wait to this point, it is harder to make changes) 

  3. When in the stage of creative ideation, make sure your references (e.g. moodboards, TV shows, podcasts, etc.) reflect your audiences and not specifically the life experiences of the team coming up with concepts. Implicit bias and microaggressions tends to influence this stage. 

  4. Casting – We who work in creative industries know that when we read "open casting" that it is most times code for hiring actors/actresses who are Caucasian. As you have seen in this evidence of the piece already, there is no evidence to justify this view; in fact, it would behoove brands to consider more non-Caucasian audiences and stories.

  5. When measuring audience responses to creative output, whether a TV ad, social content or a potential new in-store experience, it is beneficial to measure the subconscious when possible – By utilizing a subconscious method for this research, we were able to confirm without bias, what we had seen in survey research. Moreover, we were able to get a deeper understanding of what happened second by second to see when visual and aural cues on screen affect audiences differently, things respondents could not tell an interviewer via survey research.

  6. Consider using Cross-Cultural Marketing, an approach that is grounded in subcultural insights and nuances to then arrive at universal human truths with bottom-up thinking. By understanding the relationships between minority groups and Canada as a whole, we can ultimately make more inclusive and compelling advertising for all.

Make no mistake, we believe the 2020s are going to be a very different decade based upon everything that has occurred this year (2020). And while we may have told you in 2019 that having diverse and inclusive advertising was going to be an imperative in the 2020s, there is no doubt it is even more important now. And as Canada gets more diverse and inclusive each year, the more that brand survival will be partially dependent on understanding the changing demographics and attitudes of Canada.

Chasson Gracie is the Director of Insights and Analytics at john st. and co-lead of Roots, WPP’s network dedicated to championing greater ethnic and cultural diversity within the creative industry. He is also an award-winning documentarian who explores cultural pluralism and its impact on North American culture.

Joshua Richards is the Director of Creative Technology at john st., co-lead of Roots, and founding steering committee member of POCAM (People of Colour in Advertising and Marketing), a 700+ member group working to ensure the voices and talent of BIPOC professionals are fully and fairly present in Canadian advertising and marketing.

Daniel Pozzebon is an Insights Analyst at john st. with a specialization in data visualization and journalism.

Kevin Keane is the Founder and CEO of Brainsights, the premiere neuromarketing research company in Canada. Learn more about Brainsights here.

Jasmin Amin is an Insights Consultant at Brainsights where she focuses on data-driven storytelling. She has a specialization in Finance, Mental Health and Cross-cultural communications.