How inclusive is the casting in ads?

Nuanced portrayals of identity in advertising have improved but are still hard to find
How inclusive is the casting in ads?

In partnership with Google, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media analyzed character depictions in the most-watched ads on YouTube between 2015 and 2019. The findings suggest that while the industry is making strides in presenting a more diverse array of people, it still has a ways to go when it comes to combating negative stereotypes and being inclusive across a broader cross section of identities.

According to Madeline Di Nonno, President & CEO of the Institute, “stereotypes shape our split-second emotional responses and judgments of others in ways we may not be conscious of, so media reinforcing negative stereotypes of people of color produces real-world discrimination.”

The researchers analysed 11 verticals, 978 ads and 4171 characters from the most watched ads on YouTube. Videos were uploaded between Jan 1, 2015 and March 31, 2019. Though the real world has yet to catch up, new data suggests the creative teams are casting with diversity in mind, but overall, an aggregate increase in diversity is no guarantee of inclusion across race, gender, or other aspects of identity.

  • Nearly 40% of the characters depicted were characters of colour, but black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) characters were nearly three times as likely as white characters to be shown in leadership positions.
  • Despite making up over 18% of the population in the U.S., just 6% of characters most seen by U.S. audiences were Latinx.
  • In a subset of ads aimed at Americans, about 40% of whom are BIPOC, only 31% of characters were people of colour. Latinx characters were particularly underrepresented.
  • Globally, 35% of the BIPOC characters were women, compared with 43% of white characters.

While 74% of ads featured at least one woman, 61% were white. Once cast, women of colour face an institutional lack of access to make up artists, stylists, and photographers. Eurocentric norms also affect women outside the industry: black women are 80% more likely to change their hair due to biased expectations at work.

Only 2 in 10 Middle Eastern characters were women: misogyny compounds the exclusionary effects of racism. And because few population surveys acknowledge Middle Eastern heritage, ads and other media rarely reflect the millions of Middle Eastern women around the world.

Latinx characters were nearly 3X as likely to appear partially nude, and 2x as likely to appear in revealing clothing: sexism and racism often converge. The study found that many ads reinforce sexist stereotypes that hypersexualize and objectify Latinas 88% of Latinx characters shown in revealing clothes were women.

Asian characters were about half as likely to be depicted driving: Repeatedly and thoroughly debunked stereotypes about Asian drivers still cause harm. Despite appearing most often in automotive ads, Asian characters were far less likely to be shown in cars. When they were, less than half were women.

About 2% of ads depicted at least one LGBTQ+ character: Intersectional representation includes not only race and sex, but ability, body, type, sexual orientation, gender identity, age and other characteristics.

Almost all characters with disabilities were depicted as white.

Depictions of the disability community remain rare, with only 2% of ads featuring someone with disability. Those limited portrayals are overwhelmingly white.

Across business verticals, advertisers missed opportunities to challenge and subvert stereotypes:

  • Black characters were almost 2x as likely to be depicted in comedic roles.
  • Compared with other groups, Latinx characters were underrepresented at sporting events
  • White characters were nearly 2x as likely to be portrayed as especially intelligent

Less than 1% of characters were indigenous. Only 4% had speaking roles: when people are seen but not heard, it suggests that they are being tokenised. Portrayals that deny people their agency have shown to cause psychological harm.

Homogenous creative teams often spread a view of the world that centers around themselves. White characters were 4% more likely to be shown outdoors, and represented 69% of characters in Media and Entertainment, the least diverse vertical.


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