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Dutch advertising is still dominated by traditional characters

Dutch advertising is still dominated by traditional characters

Niki Schroeder

Director Media, Innovation and Creative



During the COVID-19 outbreak, the world has been shaken up by the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the Netherlands, the debate is not only around cultural profiling by the police, but also about the wider experience of institutional racism in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands seems to have woken up. We, as a supposedly tolerant country, need to admit that we do have a lot of institutional racism and minorities are indeed discriminated against. Not only on the street, but also in school, where people of color tend to be advised toward lower educational paths. It is also more difficult for people of color to get a job, and they are often paid less. And so on.

If we want to end institutional racism, we need to promote more positive experiences for people of color. And if there is one industry that knows how to influence people’s perceptions, it is the advertising industry.

With an association for communication agencies, the VEA, Kantar has conducted a research study to figure out how diverse the nature of Dutch advertising actually is. We tallied over 400 ads which have been broadcasted on public television in 2019, to get to a representative data set.

On the positive side, people of color are represented in 55 percent of the ads that we sampled. That is good news: It suggests that Dutch people do not want to discriminate, and want to be perceived as tolerant and progressive.

But if you dig a bit deeper and look at the specific roles and screen time people of color get in advertising, the picture grows more complicated. People of color are mostly displayed in a secondary role, or only as a bit players, in most ads. Moreover, when we dare to include people of color, we advertisers tend to worry about not also including a white person. Only some 6 percent of all ads feature a person of color in a lead role without a white character in a second lead role.

When people of color are systematically excluded from leading roles in advertising spots, or are otherwise overwhelmed by white leading characters, audiences do not get a truly fresh and positive perception of people of color. To the contrary, audience members receive a reinforced message that only white people (and especially men) are highly aspirational.

The stereotypes at play in modern advertising extend far beyond racial roles, of course. We also see that men are more often shown in “at-work” roles in advertising spots, and are more likely to be represented and accounted for across all ages. Women and people of color, meanwhile, are more likely to only be shown when they’re young, and are less likely to be shown at work.

While advertisers and creative agencies do their best to show they are diverse, there are still some unconscious beliefs in place that hinder real inclusion and diversity in advertising. For instance, advertisers want to spend their media money wisely, and some marketers believe that when people of color are featured prominently, white people (who represent some 80 percent of the Dutch target audience) will, in turn, feel excluded and alienated from a brand. Or marketers believe that the audience will always find young females more aspirational than older females. Or marketers believe that they really only need to feature people of color when they are pursuing a “mass” or “urban” audience – and that other brand positionings don’t call for similar diversity.

Maybe it is time to start questioning our beliefs about targeting in advertising. As a qualitative researcher, I have been surprised many times by people’s responses. They often thought differently than I expected. Maybe we do not mind seeing a woman in her fifties. Maybe the average Dutch viewer can feel just as connected to a person of color as to a white person. In all the creative testing I have done over the years, I have often heard remarks of advertising being too white. By contrast, I do not recall hearing people complain that they couldn’t identify with an ad because it featured a person of color, or a disabled person, or an older person.

It is encouraging to see that society and the creative industry is waking up. I do hope this leads to real, lasting change in advertising diversity. To real change in how we target our media, and real change in how we portray people in advertising. If we manage this change well, the creative industry can have a huge positive impact on beating institutional racism - by changing how society sees people of different backgrounds.