Advertising advice: cast fewer white men

Even ignoring the cocaine budgets of the 80s, the advertising industry isn’t renowned for its ethics. We prey on insecurities, fears and ego to peddle poisons, carcinogens, junk food and pollutants.

We ought to be ashamed of ourselves. And I think, secretly, a lot of us are. So why do it? For most people in advertising, it’s because they love the work: problem-solving, art and storytelling all rolled into one.

For others, it’s that advertising has power.

We’ve all enjoyed the thrill of someone whistling our jingle in the supermarket, hearing someone use a word you coined, or even, glory of glories, seeing sales spike. We’re intending to change behaviour and sway decisions and it actually works. Advertising both reflects and guides our society. Many things we accept as the status quo were perpetuated by advertising – if not invented entirely. Here are a few obvious ones that we can directly link to advertising:

That’s a lot of power. As I see it, the biggest shame of the ad industry isn’t that we’re selling crap. It’s that we’re not using our powers for good often enough. We’re not owning the responsibilities that come hand in hand with the power we wield. Because, if we can make women think differently about hair colour, or completely redesign a holiday icon, we have a massive hand to play when it comes to social change – and we don’t even need a social change campaign to do it.

Where are all the women?

Take a look at this nicely executed poster from Auckland Transport. Notice the pronoun? The lecturer is a woman. Ten feminism points to you, AT (Although, five points off for making it pink).


The important thing is how conspicuous that female pronoun is – it sticks out like a sore thumb because it’s so unusual. Take a look at around. Women are most often included in ads to fill a specific lady-shaped hole. They’re there to be desirable, nurturing, nags, or to sell women-specific products (although, those ads are hardly a man-free zone ).

Sure, (white) men fill man-shaped holes too – they’re the lazy parents, oafs, man-children or emotional-stunted. That’s not great either, but men also tend to fill the neutral roles. You know, the characters that could just as easily have been played by women. They’re the doctors, lecturers, and evil business people or heck, even just average Joes (Josephines?), BP service attendants, the people bantering with the rhyming guy from an energy company, the barista opening up a cafe or people singing about insurance.

See that? Three lead singers, all men, in their humanly glory. All the background extras: also men. The only female soloist is a mother character who waits patiently for her husband to sing the first line. Three featured women out of a cast of maybe fifteen.

Our default person: white man

There’s nothing offensive here: nothing actively sexist. The women are simply… absent. The same can be said for any other minority you choose to mention – people of colour, overweight people, the elderly, red heads… They’re included because they’re not-white, overweight, older etc, etc. (Although, full credit to State for the sort-of-token racial diversity. Baby steps.)

Simply put, we advertising folk have a default person: a white, straight, slender man. We unconsciously build stories around him, and we automatically cast him in roles that don’t necessarily require whiteness or maleness.

And why is that an issue? If you only ever see brown, Chinese, gay, female, old, or fat people in roles built around their browness, Chineseness, gayness, femaleness, age or weight we’re much less likely to see them as just, well, complex, interesting humans. While men enjoy “normal people” status, the rest of us are defined by the very thing that marginalises us. We’re not clever, or weird, or devious or strong or sad – we’re just “female”, “gay”, “Chinese” “fat” or “brown”.

This isn’t ad people being racists, sexist or anything ‘ist’. It’s the way our brains are wired, but that’s not a reason to get complacent. This kind of unconscious bias holds us all back.

How to change the world

And here’s the thing. As advertisers, we have the power to shape people’s view of the world. We have the power to change people’s unconscious biases.

This stuff isn’t hard. I’m not asking you to storm into the boardroom and demand a blind casting policy. Awareness is the key. When you need to tell a story, ask yourself, is there a story that could be told about a non-white-male person? If there’s a role to be cast, think, does the ad still make sense with a woman, or a Maori person, or a chubby older person?

The challenge, though, is not to create more rah-rah girl-power roles, or “hooray for minorities” United Colours of Benneton tokenism. We should be using our powers to cast these people as the ordinary, fallible, glorious humans they are.

We hold the key to true equality across every societal divide.

Let’s change the world, while we’re selling fried chicken.

Helen Steemson

The lead copy writer and creative director at Words for Breakfast. She spends much of her time working with the copy writing team across a variety of projects.