Diversity + Advertising

I don’t usually do the Daily Prompt, but when I clicked on it today, it made me remember an essay I wrote a few years back. Recent musings have brought that essay back to mind more than once in the past few weeks, and it dovetails perfectly with the theme of the prompt—diversity.


Atlanta, Georgia — May 2013

I’ve been mistaken for Latina in Cancun, Brazilian in Rio de Janeiro, Thai in Bangkok, and Middle Eastern in Kuwait. On different occasions people have asked me if I am Eskimo, or Native American, or Italian, or Hawaiian. When traveling, I am more often spoken to in the land’s mother tongue than in English. I’m half Filipino, half Caucasian, and while my ethnicity and my looks make chameleonic to many varied ethnic groups I grew up never seeing a family that looked like mine in the many advertisements that blared in the breaks between television shows that never featured brown-complexioned characters.

I did my undergraduate studies at Emerson College. Experiencing Emerson, and the city of Boston itself, was a hearty dose of culture shock for a girl who’d grown up in the melting-pot of California’s Bay Area. There were few mixed students on campus. There were few students of color at all on campus. For some students, I was the first Filipino they had ever met—this led to a feeling that anything I said or did was representative of my race, something I struggled mightily with.

It was in these first years on my own, in this entirely new place, that I began to notice the roles race played, or didn’t play, in the media around me. As the child of an interracial marriage, I always noticed the lack of mixed race couples in television and movie plots, novels, commercials. When they were featured, it was more for shock value than as an honest representation of the couple or the environment. Years before #OscarssoWhite, it enraged me when they cast white actors or actresses to play roles that should have been played by Asians, Pacific Islanders, or Native Americans. But I didn’t know yet what to do with that frustration.

When I was considering graduate school, I examined multiple areas of study. I pondered programs ranging from Post-Colonial Studies to Dance Ethnography to Anthropology to East Asian Studies. I decided, ultimately, that I didn’t want to foray into academia. I wanted a program that was practical, creative—a program where I could contribute my perspective, experiences, and voice to actually make a difference. I decided I want to go into advertising. To create materials for the public that are not only reflective of the public and their uniqueness, but celebratory of it as well. To challenge those who think that the only time a Latina woman should about T-Mobile should be on Telemundo, or that commercials feature African-American families are just for BET.

I’m sure in the light of the efforts of others, this goal may seem trivial. But to me it is important that my children see that they are not alone—that others that look like them exist. That it is normal to be part of that rich and varied spectrum that falls between black and white. That our voices are just as important, our people just as beautiful, our stories just as relevant.


Hamburg, Germany — May 2016

In the time since I finished this essay, I’ve worked for four different agencies on a wide range of clients. I’ve read the ad blogs, followed the Twitter rampages, and seen both huge leaps forward, and cringe-worthy setbacks. I’ve struggled with representation and sexism first-hand—a client who scoffed at the idea of showing a woman driving a sport-performance car, for example. Today, there’s a lot of pushback against the idea of “diverse”. I’ve struggled with how to balance my desire for change and my quick tongue and my career goals. I’ve come back, again and again, to the adage: “Don’t win a battle and lose the war.” Winning the war requires fighting a lot of battles. But fighting a lot of battles might knock you out of the career path. The NYTimes had a great article on women in advertising trying to find the line between making it in the industry and sticking up for their rights. It’s a shitty brief that would easily sap the resources of a whole string of strategists. But right now, if you’re anything other than a white guy in advertising, that’s the sphere we work in.

There have certainly been moments that made me proud of American culture and our brands. In advertising it’s common to say, “Make brave work” or “That’s a brave idea”, and we kind of universally acknowledge that most of the stuff we do daily isn’t any form of bravery in the traditional sense. But ads like the recent Old Navy and the Cheerios commercial from a few years ago, both of which feature an interracial family, or HoneyMaid‘s “This is Wholesome” campaign, which focus on the range of family types, make me hopeful. There are clients willing to take risks. There are brands willing to sacrifice customers who aren’t willing to look into the future with them. And there are creatives willing to envision those stories and show us something real.

I’ve since moved abroad to work for a German ad agency. When people think of Germany, I think it’s a pretty safe bet to imagine the first thought crossing everyone’s mind has to do with the Nazis and the lack of diversity. And this while this is a very homogenous country, it’s getting more diverse by the day as refugees arrive and settle in. I’m excited to help chart the “new normal” in German advertising, and I’m excited to learn more about the culture through the way it advertises to its people.