By David H. Kirkwood
SAN FRANCISCO—For decades, advertising, especially television and print campaigns aimed at a broad national audience, has been an accurate barometer of public attitudes in America toward various minority groups.
In casting models and actors—or selecting “real people” to appear as themselves—for ads, agencies try to present people that the target audience can relate to. After all, if most viewers don’t identify with a person portrayed buying a particular brand of toothpaste or car or a couple choosing a life insurance policy, the ad is unlikely to persuade them to buy that same toothpaste, car, or insurance themselves. That, of course, defeats the entire purpose of the ads.
Incredible as it may seem to anyone too young to remember the 1960s, it was not until well into that decade that non-Caucasians started to appear occasionally in mainstream advertising. Before that, African-Americans, except perhaps a famous musician or athlete paid to endorse a product, were virtually never seen in ads, despite making up about 10% of the U.S. population in 1960. Asian-Americans and Hispanics were even less visible.
Apparently, advertisers or the agencies they hired to design their ads, didn’t think most consumers would respond well to pitches from people they saw as different from them, as outside the norm.
The situation has changed dramatically in the past half-century. For one thing, as the U.S. population was growing from 180 million in 1960 census to nearly 310 million in 2010, racial minorities’ share of the total population more than doubled, from 11% to 28%, according to the Census Department. Equally significant is the shift in Americans’ attitudes. Now, the nation’s diversity is seen as something to celebrate and embrace, and most people are better able to identify with people of another color or culture.
These demographic and attitudinal changes have been reflected in marketing. Today, the faces we see and the voices we hear in ads are much more representative of the American public as a whole than once they were. Indeed, the trend toward greater inclusiveness in casting for ads is accelerating, and extending beyond racial and ethnic categories.
NEW AD FEATURES TWO OFTEN UNSEEN GROUPS
Last week, Wells Fargo bank unveiled a new ad that brought together people from two demographic groups—gay and lesbians and people with disabilities—that have rarely been used to sell products and services.
The ad, which was viewed more than 350,000 times in its first week on YouTube, features two attractive 30-something women, who are shown learning Sign Language, as music plays in the background.
They first appear separately, practicing the signs for phrases such as “I’m so proud of you” and “What’d you learn in school today?”
It soon becomes clear that the women are a loving couple. They are shown driving, looking nervous but happy, to an office where they are introduced to the adorable little deaf girl they are going to adopt. One woman signs to her, “We’re going to be your new mommies,” and the other adds, “I’m so happy.” The girl breaks into a radiant smile and replies silently, “I’m happy, too.”
The one-minute ad closes with the only spoken words—a voice-over saying, “We can help you prepare financially for when two becomes three. Working together we will go far. Wells Fargo.”
Created by the advertising agency BBDO, the commercial is one in a series of nine commissioned by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, which is America’s second largest bank in terms of branches. However, it is the only one featuring gay people (who were portrayed by a lesbian couple) or someone with a disability (the girl in the ad is really deaf, but not the daughter of the two women.)
It’s too soon to know if it will make money for Wells Fargo, the commercial, entitled “Learning Sign Language,” has received dozens of rave reviews from online critics, including the Huffington Post, which called it “heartwarming,” and Gay Star News, which described it as “an adorable advert.”
Of those who viewed it at YouTube, the ratio of “likes” to dislikes” was 65 to 1.
Ad Age, an advertising publication, interviewed Matt Miller, BBDO’s executive creative director, who said, “We never set out to make a spot about a lesbian couple. We set out to reflect the modern world this campaign lives in.”
START OF A TREND?
In the past year or two, there has been a mini-trend toward making ads with gay characters. One for Ikea showed two men buying furniture for their home and Droga5 used a male couple with a baby to sell Honey Maid cereal.
However, ads showing people with disabilities are rare indeed, unless they are for products, such as hearing aids, designed specifically for them.
Will the Wells Fargo campaign ad lead to more marketing that uses people who happen to be deaf or blind or have cerebral palsy? It’s hard to predict, but what BBDO has shown with “Learning Sign Language” is that it is possible today to build an ad around unusual people and make it very appealing to the mainstream audience.