The ad industry is at “an evolutionary point of cultural awareness and change” – thanks to its growing stream of diverse voices

The future of advertising is often discussed from many angles with publications, industry professionals and everyday consumers taking their pick on what’s next to shape the industry. 

Social awareness has been an overarching theme in many of these discussions with diversity and inclusion at the forefront of it all. 

Boston University joined the conversation by inviting three alumni in the advertising space to speak to current students about the new wave of advertising emerging. Nihal Atawane, a junior copywriter at Hill Holiday, Carla Ford, an account executive at MullenLowe and Melanie Liu, a producer at Digitas lead the conversation by discussing the mistakes made by brands when using culture as a tool to sell products. 

To no surprise, the infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial was used a prime example of what not to do when selling a product, as it seemingly used the hardships that minorities face as a marketing tool for its campaign. Many took offense to this along with the brand deciding to use Jenner as a representative as she had little relation to the minorities Pepsi decided to showcase. 

BU alums, Liu, Atawane and Ford discussing the pros and cons of the shifting ad industry. Photo credit: Seiji Wakabayashi

Ford believes that mistakes like this often happen due to a lack of research from advertisers who don’t connect with the groups they’re trying to target. “I think some people just don’t want to do the work, especially if it’s a group that no one else on the team can identify with,” she said. Ford encourages advertisers to seek people in their network who identify with the audience they are trying to reach and ask them if certain ideas are appropriate to use before presenting it to a client. “If [you’re] going to put out work that targets a community, it has to be thoroughly thought out from start to finish,” she added. Although it’s great to ask relevant people for approval, Ford also suggests that we take the time to do our own research and not solely rely on folks from different communities to do the work for us.

A lack of research is not the only reason behind effortless and half-thought out ideas. The fast-paced nature of ad agencies are also to blame as they often expect employees to work under pressure with little time to question the validity behind certain ideas. “Some people just feel a need to finish things and give it to the client,” Liu said. As great as it is to come up with an idea, it’s still important to take note of the potential problems that can come with it – no matter the boldness and creativity it may hold. Liu suggests that at times, it’s best to be the person to disagree with an idea if it can potentially cause a backlash from viewers and hurt a brand’s image. 

BU students engaging with alums and asking questions. Photo credit: Seiji Wakabayashi

Atawane agrees with the notion of standing up to problematic ideas and believes that everyone in a creative team should be held accountable if audience backlash takes place. The creative process is something that gets approved on many levels and “if no one has the sense to object [during the time being], then everyone is responsible,” he said.  

Culture and/or specific communities have the amazing ability to either amplify a brand’s message or offend potential consumers and push them away from buying a product. Atawane believes that using cultural trends as a marketing tool “is not something to be trifled with” and could get brands in trouble if done incorrectly. “If you’re going to do it, do it right or don’t do it at all,” he said. It’s always important to question why we use culture as a creative tool and make sure it holds relevance to the key themes we’re trying to present. 

Although some creatives evidently take care in the ideas they pitch and the problems it could have, it’s the client who has the final say on how things are run. Clients can insist on using ideas that may be problematic, leaving advertisers in positions to run an ad regardless. Ford explains that it’s best to let a client make their own mistakes if they aren’t willing to listen, and use whatever reaction they get as a learning curve.

The advertising industry is near a pivotal point with its new voices continuing to shake up the space. For now, it’s too early to tell how far our current voices are pushing the envelope but those who don’t want to adapt often get left behind. 

Moiketsi Thipe, Staff Writer

Moiketsi Thipe is a senior at Boston University from Johannesburg, South Africa who is currently pursuing her studies in mass communication. She is curious about up-and-coming trends and appreciates the art of storytelling.

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