Advertising Week 2019: Ageism and ableism on the agenda

Speakers went beyond perfunctory insights on gender and race to take a more holistic and empathetic perspective on diversity.


Women are present in ads, but they’re stereotyped. People of colour are represented, but they’re tokenized. Transgender and queer communities are there too, but efforts are perfunctory. Seniors are a consideration, but they’re typecast as sickly. Those with disabilities and low socioeconomic groups are barely a blip on the radar.

Sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, cissexism, classism. All of the -isms were present and accounted for on day one at Advertising Week in New York. The tension was thick enough to cut with a knife, as panelists pointed out the industry’s continued failings to represent diverse groups within ads, and within the make-up of their organizations. It’s no surprise and it’s not new. It’s the whole reason a Diversity & Inclusion programming track exists at Ad Week.

However, conversations around the industry’s favourite analogy – who’s inviting who to the party (diversity) and who’s asking them to dance (inclusion) – went to some new places.

There was a consensus among strategists from Deloitte and its digital agency Heat that what’s thwarting progress is a habit of blanketing diversity. The industry tends to think of people as one-dimensional and advertisers don’t account for nuances. Because there has been so much pressure to include anyone beyond those with a certain male pronoun and light pigmentation, the industry forgets that people are multifaceted and intersectional. They’re not just a quota to meet or a checkbox to fill, they’re a whole human.

“I am not just a man. I am not just gay. I am not just Jewish. I am not just from California. I am all of those things and the product of those things,” said Devon Dickau, a consulting lead at Deloitte. “It’s about creating those intersections and spaces where we can support the needs of the individual populations, but in a way that acknowledges and celebrates all aspects of their identity.”

The question then becomes less about stats, and more about how to achieve a deeper understanding. Empathy, and the idea of confronting stereotypes about certain demographics through compassion and appreciation for nuances, came up as a potential answer in several sessions.

In a discussion about seniors being taken seriously as a rich and worthy target, speakers looked to debunk myths around the fastest growing age group (10,000 people turn 65 every day in the U.S. alone). And in the process, Bill Yates, CCO and CMO at connected digital health company GreatCall, shared his team’s empathic approach to removing confusion from the data they had collected on the demo so they could build better products. The company’s c-suite went on a cross-country tour, spending days in the homes of seniors and their caregivers (if they had one), all in the name of more compassionate research. Findings were bottled up and translated back into more meaningful creative and even new services – like a partnership with Lyft that takes advantage of the rideshare revolution for the senior community.

“If I was to say one thing that is blocking our ability to remove that barrier of stereotypes, it’s not having a genuine empathy for understanding what is really at the core of the needs of customers,” he said.

Ironically, as the industry thinks about the future, removing humans and our sensitivities could open up new doors for diversity and inclusion. Already a dominant topic among sessions at Ad Week, artificial intelligence was also lauded as a panacea for disparities in the workforce.

From hiring to management to promotions, AI has the potential of removing the decision-making legwork in diversity and inclusion strategies. But even with good intentions, companies still run the risk of algorithmic bias. Panelists speaking on the current state of AI said one workaround is to have empathy coded into AI systems. Hire coders who demonstrate compassion during the interview process. Work with philosophers and social workers to ask the right socially aware questions, and then code those principles into the AI.

Perhaps looking at who is feeding data into a machine, and how they’re creating those machines, can remove bias from rankings like Forbes’ 100 most innovative leaders in the world, where 99 are men and only one is a woman, said Jocelyn Lee, head of AI at Heat. As great as AI is, we need human beings to be the guardrails and there needs to be diversity in data and the people who are inputting the data. Because, like anything in advertising from creative to AI, diverse teams produce diverse outcomes.

Strategy editor Jennifer Horn is at Advertising Week New York and will spend the week filing reports on the most frequent and hotly debated issues and industry trends as they arise.