Weekend reading: Normalizing today’s normal

We examine how a recent marcom diversity onslaught is helping to usher in a new era of normalization in mainstream advertising.


This story appears in the April issue of strategy.

A man rouses from his slumber to find his chest covered in Cheerios, placed by his daughter in the hopes it will help with his heart health.
It’s the premise of a touching spot for the brand in the U.S. from 2013. But it has become known for less endearing reasons.

“Just Checking” featured a multiracial family and incited racist remarks on YouTube. The brand ended up shutting down the comments section, but made a strong rebuttal by featuring the same family in the 2014 Super Bowl spot “Gracie.”

Jason Doolan, director of marketing, cereal, General Mills Canada, recalls that when his American colleagues showed them “Just Checking” on a visit to Canada, the concept of a mixed-race family wasn’t shocking to them or considered that progressive, he explains. After all, the brand ran a spot in Quebec with a mixed-race family three years earlier and the talent just happened to be of varying backgrounds.

But while featuring mixed-race couples in Canadian advertising has become fairly commonplace, depicting groups such as people with disabilities, the LGBT community and non-heteronormative families is not as far along on the course to becoming normalized in ads.
But a recent onslaught of marcom is changing that, contributing to the latest evolution of normalization in mainstream advertising.

Coming out of the heteronormative advertising closet

Progressive advertising in Canada today can be found in the form of Os coming together – Cheerios to be precise – which serve as a metaphor for people. General Mills’ “The Cheerios Effect” campaign featured vignettes of people sharing tales around the theme of connection, one of which depicts a gay couple telling the story of adopting their daughter, who is of a different ethnicity. It garnered both positive and negative attention.

And General Mills isn’t the only company of late in North America to feature same-sex couples in mainstream marcom. Tide recently debuted a spot in the Canadian market featuring two male partners and their laundry (both clean and dirty), while Tiffany’s new “Will You?” engagement campaign, “reflecting a more modern approach to love and romance,” according to the brand, similarly depicts a same-sex couple. And of course, Honeymaid challenged the traditional interpretation of the word “wholesome” by characterizing families of all kinds – including those with same-sex parents – as such.

Same-sex couples in advertising is something we’re seeing a lot now, says Jeff McCrory, chief strategic officer, BBDO Canada. “It is a trend, but almost because it’s been so absent, not because it feels out of place now to me.”

Multicultural marketing and the inclusion of non-traditional family structures and non-heteronormative sexuality can get lumped into the same category, says Robert Kozinets, professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business, but there’s a distinction. Featuring a particular ethnic group in a banking ad in an urban centre like Toronto could be reaching much of the brand’s target demo, he explains, but this isn’t the same as if a brand features a transgender person in its advertising, for instance.

The latter falls more into the category of CSR and brands being unafraid to take a risk, Kozinets says, offering a hypothetical example of a brand running ads with lesbian couples raising children, and that brand consciously deciding to deal with potential backlash.

Depicting non-heteronormative family structures is “something that’s still, I think, at a very initial and tentative, experimental level because [they aren't] the face of Canada if we look at it statistically,” he says. Portraying a group such as transgenders, for instance, who are statistically a small percentage of the population, is more about brands taking an ideological stand for a more diverse and accepting society.

And while same-sex marriage is legal and the law forbids discrimination, it doesn’t mean all Canadians are supportive, he says.

“There’s still a large group of people who are uncomfortable with such depictions of families,” he says. “I think it’s interesting and important for us to realize that as marketers and people who work in advertising, the social groups around us are not always typical of the people that we seek to sell to.”

However, the number of same-sex couples portrayed in ads is likely proportionately less than the actual number in society, he says. So the desire to depict real people and the knowledge that gay consumers are significant to the economy is likely spurring companies to portray them. (Similarly, Debi Andrus, assistant professor of marketing at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, says this market segment’s value is inciting some of the group’s inclusion in mainstream advertising. And both note certain brands have targeted this demo for years, such as Absolut.)

“Companies, when they look at the big picture, particularly big spenders like General Mills or Procter & Gamble, and they realize how underrepresented certain groups, particularly gay couples, are in their marketing, I think they’re doing the right thing by representing them in advertising,” says Kozinets. “That said, it’s still not mainstream.”

Moreover, a single ad portraying a same-sex couple might be viewed in isolation and judged as such, he says, but differs from when it’s considered in the larger context of a brand’s marcom efforts – for instance just one of its past 50 ads features a same-sex couple and the rest are all heterosexual.

“You have to look at this in context. And I think what [these companies] are trying to do is the same thing that’s been happening for a long time with…ethnic images in multicultural marketing and advertising, which is to gradually bring in differences that are more representative of the population.”

This is along the lines of what General Mills in Canada says it has aimed to do with “The Cheerios Effect” – reflect the reality of society today, rather than push a political agenda.

But not all consumers interpreted it that way – Doolan says people asked whether Cheerios was being political with its marketing. However, it needed to be considered in the context of the overall campaign.

“When you just [saw] this one execution, people tended to go to places that we never intended,” he says. “We perhaps were naïve and innocent, but I think when we realized that we’re coming from the right place – we’re just trying to reflect who we are today – we tried not to be too worried about those who might challenge us.”

Mark Tomblin, chief strategy officer, Taxi, notes how this is more of an issue in the U.S. than in Canada.

“You can run a Cheerios ad like ['Cheerios Effect'] in Canada and there might be a few people who go, ‘Oh, country’s going to the dogs,’ but you don’t get the kind of backlash you get if you ran an ad like that in the States,” he says.

DRHG0001000H_NoSlates-2_300dpiHoneymaid in the U.S. experienced this first-hand with its “This is Wholesome” work, but found a way to literally repurpose the backlash it received from consumers. Artists created an installation of the word “Love” with the comments.

“That wouldn’t work in Canada because you wouldn’t get the bile and the hatred,” says Tomblin.

After all, knowing your audience is marketing 101, so reflecting consumers’ reality makes sense.

Max Valiquette, managing director, strategy, Bensimon Byrne, says for millennials today it can be about having their overarching landscape represented in a way that might not make them feel like they’re specifically targeted, but they don’t feel excluded either.

“[It's] one thing to say, ‘Here’s a gay couple, and if you’re gay, pay attention to this ad because this ad is for you.’ [It's] another to say, ‘So we’re going to do a bunch of advertising and periodically there might be a gay person in this and whether you’re gay or straight, if your world is one that is inclusive of the gay community, you’re not going to feel like we’re not talking to you with these ads anymore,” he says.

“It’s the same way that in a country as diverse as ours, as much as the majority of Canadians may experience a sort of traditional, for want of better words, heteronormative, white lifestyle – if you’re looking at an ad that features a bunch of people in a bar and everybody’s white, you’re probably going to go, ‘What is wrong with this brand?’”

When it comes to portraying same-sex couples, Tomblin sees advertising as trailing a bit behind society because it’s still transgressive to see homosexual partners holding hands for many people. He expects the TV show Modern Family helped advance ideas around same-sex parents over the past five or six years. “It’s precisely because it’s a comedy show that I think it has allowed these sort of ideas to enter into the mainstream and for people to become more comfortable with them,” paving the way for advertising, he says.

However, he still sees it as a risk, noting it’s easier for advertisers to stick to the conventional – not that they should.

“I very much sympathize with brands that try to push the envelope at all. The inertia in brand marketing is astonishing because the upside is always limited; the downside is potentially the end of your career.”

Smart spots disable differences

Brands are less likely to cause a stir by depicting people with disabilities in their marcom than with same-sex families, but the former is not a common practice either.

Michael Bach, founder and CEO, Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI), believes it’s still a highly underrepresented group in advertising, and that people with disabilities tend to be narrowly categorized (a person in a wheelchair, a blind individual and a deaf person). In reality, the community’s dichotomy is vast, he says, with visible and invisible conditions.

But a recent slew of ads depicting people with disabilities – particularly ones that ease the gap of perceived differences between able-bodied and disabled individuals – is helping to contribute to the group’s increased sense of normalization and inclusion within marcom.

Last year in its Manhattan Mall location, JCPenney displayed untraditional mannequins (originally made for a body image series on Today) modelled after real people. Among them was an individual in a wheelchair, a man with dwarfism and a former military paratrooper who lost part of his legs in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, U.K. charity Scope’s “End the Awkward” brought humour to potentially awkward encounters (such as how to approach the typical handshake during a job interview with someone without an arm), aiming to shift attitudes and ease discomfort. Similarly, “The Cheerios Effect” included a disabled and a deaf person in its vignettes, uniting them with the other folks in the common theme of connection.

Last year, P&G in the U.S. took normalizing “otherness” to new heights in a spot for Swiffer, with an amputee man presented as a regular family man doing household chores.

Valiquette says the spot’s language and portrayal of the man discussing how it’s hard to reach certain parts of the house to dust (made easier with the Swiffer product) don’t differ because of his disability.

“There’s a huge difference [between] ‘This is the brand of duster for people with one arm,’ [and] ‘This is the brand of duster that allows anybody to get to places that they couldn’t normally get to.’”

But advertising still does tend to highlight what makes someone different, says Valiquette, although it’s not necessarily negative. After all, advertising is intended to be specific and applicable to a consumer.

And spots that focus on people’s disabilities aren’t necessarily less progressive or inapplicable to able-bodied consumers.

Comcast’s recent Oscars spot taps into the imagination of childhood by showing a little blind girl sharing how she sees The Wizard of Oz. While it promotes Xfinity’s new talking guide for the visually impaired, it’s still a way to highlight its general services, while resonating with consumers on universal themes of wonder and the comfort of home.

Meanwhile, the category of the disabled athlete (brought to the fore by the Special Olympics, notes Kozinets), is not particularly new and could even be seen as stereotypical, but ads in recent years tapping into this tradition have also employed a nod towards normalization.

A Guinness ad, where able-bodied friends play in wheelchairs with their disabled pal, depicts the brand’s values and has a natural feel to it, says BBDO’s McCrory.

After all, it’s just a bunch of guys playing basketball and grabbing a beer afterwards.

SB Camry Commercial_Amy Purdy on setAnd Bach points to when athletic competitions integrate disabled and able-bodied athletes in their marcom – rather than present them separately. This is an approach Reebok took with its recent Super Bowl ad “Freak Show – Be More Human.” Among the athletes spilling their blood, sweat and tears in the name of self-improvement is a disabled man, depicted in the same vein. Also tapping into the strength of athletes – disabled or not – is a spot for Toyota, which stars Paralympian Amy Purdy, highlighting her unyielding perseverance as she goes about her day, from snowboarding to modelling.

Bach says he appreciates the spot’s subtlety and how it’s nice to see Purdy as a success story, rather than a victim. But he’d like to see disabilities normalized, where the focus isn’t on overcoming adversity. “Why couldn’t a customer in a car ad be hearing-impaired or be in a wheelchair? There’s nothing to say that you couldn’t have that kind of integration,” he says, adding it’s not about presenting them as needing to be accommodated, just simply wanting to purchase a vehicle.

The new normal

“We’re starting to see brands waking up to the reality of who their consumer is,” says Bach.

And like anything, the more brands do it, the more normalized it will become. But while there’s no unanimous consensus on the risk levels of trying to portray various forms of modern-day diversity, (for instance, Valiquette says there’s little risk if done smartly and sensitively, with a reasonable vetting process), approaching it wisely is certainly imperative.

McCrory says it’s key not to start by considering how to depict diversity, but rather whether including a particular group fits with the idea and brand. And in light of “The Cheerios Effect,” he says he hopes we progress to the point where conversations are centred on whether the ad worked in the context of what the brand aimed to express, rather than the sexual orientation of the folks in the ad.

And ultimately General Mill’s aim was to convey the message of connection, rather than a politically-charged sentiment around gay rights. And if anything, Doolan admits that in the past, the brand has taken part “in not normalizing what is normal,” given society’s diversity.

“I actually think as marketers we are at risk of being complicit of not reflecting the Canadian landscape as it is today. I would say I am more guilty of that than I am of trying to push an agenda for how we should think of ourselves. And that’s been my wake-up call in the last few years.”