Solving Advertising’s Most Glaring Issues for Them (Part 1)
Am I an expert? Absolutely not. I’m just an entry-level strategist with an opportunity to nitpick an industry that needs to change.
In all honesty, I can be a hater. They say, “let people like things.” Well, I like to hate things. I live for the MET Gala — I get to judge every celebrity’s high-fashion, high-priced, low-function outfits while I sit in sweats covered in crumbs. If ever there was a year they deserved it, it was this one. I also love watching good bad movies, like Burlesque, that have comically terrible writing but are still incredibly campy and entertaining and iconic — while talking shit the whole time. So, with all this experience under my belt, I’m putting my hater hat on with my eyes locked on the ad industry.
As someone just beginning my career in advertising, I’m enough of an outsider still to look around and call bullshit when I see something I’m unimpressed by, to say the least. Living up to the start of every deck on a brief targeting Gen Z, I’m committed to social causes, I’m not afraid to use my voice, and I’m a child of the internet.
Given that, let’s talk about two trends I see occurring in the industry, and what’s wrong with them. Then, we’ll talk about how brands, agencies, and the industry as a whole can do better. Am I an expert? Absolutely not. I’m just a strategist with an opportunity to nitpick an industry that needs to change.
Trend I hate #1: The de-yassification of logos on July 1st
I may be the ten millionth person to reiterate this point, but why the fuck are brands still doing the same safe, repetitive, and sanitized celebrations of minority groups during their delegated months? For Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Pride Month, and others, brands change the colors of their logos, do their one or two posts about Martin Luther King Jr., tokenize their queer employees, produce their #GirlBoss t-shirts, and act like they’ve done enough. Then, it’s midnight on July 1st, and the logos are immediately changed from rainbow to regular.
Brands have a responsibility to promote social good and utilize their platforms and profits to do so, especially when most, if not all, brands profit off of cultures, ideas, communities, and literal labor from women, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ individuals.
“Then, it’s midnight on July 1st, and the logos are immediately changed from rainbow to regular.”
Make it better: What brands, and by extension those of us in the ad industry, should do, is make genuine, actionable, and risky work during these months. And not only should they make genuine, actionable, and risky work, but they should do genuine, actionable, and risky things.
Pledge to pay for your trans employees’ gender confirmation surgery if your provided healthcare doesn’t. Check your biases and ask yourself and your team, “why are we only highlighting the safest, most sanitized versions of these minority groups?” Highlight subcultures and groups within these communities that aren’t featured for those reasons like leather culture in gay communities, and the movement to decolonize Hawaii by native Hawaiians and other AAPI activists. Follow Spain’s lead and give those who menstruate a few days off a year because they can’t control the havoc that is naturally wreaked on their bodies once a month.
Follow some holding companies who are updating their healthcare policies to cover the travel costs of those seeking abortion services if the Supreme Court decision goes into effect. Allow employees to take a day off to protest against discriminatory legislation, and use your money and your megaphone to move the tides against said legislation. Make this type of content on social media and in advertisements that doesn’t act as if this is a break from your regularly scheduled content but is instead a part of your regularly scheduled content.
P.S. Here’s a crazy thought! Consider advocating for these groups outside of their designated months! Your employees, coworkers, and consumers are gay, Black, transgender, Latinx, female, Asian, non-binary, disabled, bisexual, and indigenous every day, and you should act like it.
Trend I hate #2: The Social Media Intern assumption
If you spend any time on the Internet, you’ve definitely seen tweets and posts from major brands using memes or “Gen Z speech” (which is frequently AAVE or gay slang), often unsuccessfully. Successful or not, you’ve probably also seen the quote tweets, the reposts, and the replies commenting, “omg what social media intern posted this?!??!?” This is a major pet peeve of mine.
Why do we assume it’s always a social media intern? The same isn’t said about television spots or billboards that utilize internet slang. For massive brands like Wendy’s, Netflix, and Taco Bell, all of whom have notorious social media activity, multiple employees of many levels and hours of social strategy and content planning per week go into what they post, and yet it is always just the social media intern.
“By devaluing social media work, you’re only hurting your clients, your agency, your peers, and yourself.”
And just to be clear, this is not a diss on social media interns, or interns in general. I’m a fucking intern who works in social media, and we work our asses off. However, I can recognize that distilling all of the people who get their hands dirty in the social media sphere into one role, whether it’s social strategists, content producers, copywriters, designers, directors, and who knows how many more people, does a great disservice to them and to social media interns. It hurts all of us working in social media; it hurts how much we’re valued (and thus paid), it hurts the perception and security of our jobs, and it hurts our work when it’s seen as something anybody can do. As an industry, we need to take the time to reevaluate our biases when it comes to social media work and check ourselves. By devaluing social media work, you’re only hurting your clients, your agency, your peers, and yourself.
In my opinion, social media’s association with women, the trivialization of young employees, and the industry’s dismissal of social media as a legitimate marketing channel all play a role in this.
Influencers are literally the face of social media, and according to Statista, 84% of Instagram influencers are women. The Instagram baddies, the “that girls”, and the 25-year-old coastal grandmothers are all forces on Tiktok, Instagram, and Pinterest that shape trends and purchasing habits, and thus the perception of the Internet. Women outpace men in purchasing in almost every e-commerce category, which has started a cycle of women looking for other women for advice and for inspiration, women gaining mass amounts of followers, brands pouring money into these influencers to sell products to those women, and rinse and repeat. This is one facet that has led to the association of social media with women, let alone young women.
Social media sits in such an odd limbo when it comes to advertising. Some see it as a super valuable way to connect to younger generations, create organic buzz, and build relationships with an audience (as they should). However, social media teams are often given tiny budgets, unrealistic staffing, and little to no support from upper executives, yet they’re expected to get millions of views on every TikTok. So many of these execs don’t understand the power of social media and the hard work it takes to get one single post to pop off, let alone build a consistent platform of one hit video after another.
Make it better: Fund and empower your social teams. Hire people who look, act, purchase, and experience life the way your audiences do. They can do big things when energy, time, and money is invested in them. Show young people who really know how social platforms work that you trust them and believe in their talent. Let them prove it to you.
“So many of these execs don’t understand the power of social media and the hard work it takes to get one single post to pop off, let alone build a consistent platform of one hit video after another.”
As most of us know, Duolingo is a prime example of this. Under the leadership of a 24-year-old woman of color, Zaria Parvez, the brand has seen massive success on TikTok. This has of course led to a huge increase in brand awareness and affinity, but it doesn’t stop there. Duolingo’s US marketing lead, Michaela Kron, stated that there has been a “noticeable uptick” in users reporting they’ve downloaded the app because of the company’s TikTok. Kron also said that many applicants to job openings at Duolingo have referenced the TikTok account as the reason they applied. So, not only has funding and empowering their social team brought Duolingo an influx in customers, but it’s also brought them new talent.
This advice isn’t for clients only. Community managers, listen up. R/GA has a fantastic Twitter presence. They tweet about agency life, the industry, what’s going on in culture, and just random hilarious stuff. In comparison to an agency with a similar reputation and almost exactly the same number of followers, Wieden + Kennedy, R/GA often gets at least 10x the number of likes W+K does. R/GA’s Twitter presence made me go out of my way to look for jobs I could apply for there, and that’s just me, but it speaks to a similar pattern that Duolingo proves.
Pay your social teams well. Attract talented people. Respect them as you would any other creative team. Give them the time, space, and resources they deserve, because when it works, it fucking works, and you’re much better off for it.
Also, as a fun experiment, I’d love for an agency to challenge their executive suite to plan and create social content for one month for a brand. Get them to understand how hard it is. It’d be awesome to see if that would make them value their social teams better.
End rant (for now)
The ad industry is a people industry. What we do requires creativity, empathy, wit, passion, and living a human life (sorry, AI). Both of the issues above come down to people, and this industry needs to care and needs to change because we are a people industry. Let’s check ourselves the next time we picture a social media intern when we see a funny brand post. As Pride month comes up, think about how you can actually do something that makes a difference for people who are oppressed rather than just checking off a box. Be curious! Explore how you can make these changes in your life, your workplace, and your industry.
Trust me though, this isn’t all I have to say about what’s going on in advertising right now. There’s more I’d love to write about the way we treat people, both consumers and coworkers, the content we create and the way we go about doing so, and other common traditions and tactics, and how we could go about fixing our mistakes. Stay tuned!