Is there a better way to do it?

An abridged version of the piece written by Damien Venuto, Business Editor, published in the NZ Herald on 17 August 2022.

Everything from our chocolate bars to our mobile phone providers are embracing local diversity in their advertising and communications.

This is fundamentally important given the impact these representations have on society.

You need only look at the harm caused in terms of body dysmorphia through decades of having certain beauty standards repeated to know that advertising imagery can have a real-world impact.

Historical advertising that relied heavily on tropes or stereotypes also did little but reinforce those misconceptions all to generate a few laughs and move some product.

In the broader historical context of New Zealand media and advertising, the wider use of Māori and Pasifika faces and representations in advertising media is a positive step when compared to the exclusionary approach of earlier years.

But this social debate is also evolving.

Earlier this year, AMV BBDO senior strategist Mike Alhadeff wrote a provocative piece in The Drum magazine arguing that inclusive advertising had so far failed to move past tokenism or condescension.

In July, Hawke’s Bay student Kamaia Moore won a Human Rights Commission Award for Impact for a speech in which she called “cultural side projects” that simply amount to tokenistic efforts to embrace cultural diversity that fail to make a lasting impact.

“Within the confines of a cultural side project, it dictates that cultural diversity will only be embraced within when it is convenient or for the sake of appearing well and diverse,” Moore said.

“Cultural side projects devalue culture and use it as a means of gaining recognition.”

Kamaia Moore

Former Conservation Minister Kiritapu Allan also recently made headlines for calling out the tokenistic use of te reo Māori at the Department of Conservation.

The email shared suggested that te reo words should not be used where an English alternative was available. Allan later clarified the directive as inaccurate, explaining that her position was against the tokenistic use of the language.

“I encourage te reo use but in no way will I tolerate tokenistic use of te reo by Government agencies as an attempt to show Government departments are culturally competent,” Allan said.

This simple sentence gets to the crux of the debate about the fact that throwing around a few te reo words when convenient does equate to cultural competence.

The same principle could be applied to businesses that love to celebrate events like Matariki but still lack Māori representation in their leadership teams and do nothing to support Māori beyond moments when it’s commercially convenient.

It’s an issue that New Zealand’s advertising and marketing landscape is becoming more aware of as this space evolves.

Advertising agency FCB this year recruited Vivien Bridgwater as its director of philosophy – a title she laughs at, before blaming it on the agency’s chief executive Sébastien Desclée.

Desclée, who studied philosophy at university, admits his guilt with a wry smile but says that it was done very deliberately to reflect the role he sees Bridgwater playing within the agency.

“What do I mean by director of philosophy?,” Desclée asks, pre-empting my next question.

“It’s about making sure that what we’re doing is sincere and authentic. Her role is to challenge us a lot, actually. We will make mistakes, but we have to if we’re serious about being on this journey.

“Philosophy means the love of wisdom and that’s really what we’re trying to achieve.”

Bridgwater was sceptical when she was first approached by Desclée to take on the role of essentially challenging the work the agency was doing for clients.

“I was a little bit circumspect,” admits Bridgwater, saying that she wanted to be sure this wasn’t just a box-ticking exercise.

“Everyone is hiring consultants to create a relationship with brown people so that they can turn up and put that on the pitch document,” Bridgwater tells the Herald.

“I’m only interested in organisations that will really start to think about that from the inside out. It needs to start inside your organisation.”

Even well-intentioned organisations can get this wrong. When Nike released its celebrated campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, many online critics pointed out that the company continues to rely on questionable supply chains in Asia.

Of course, no company is perfect, but if you’re going to make a stand on an issue, you have to ensure that your company reflects those values.

Bridgwater says that casting Māori and Pasifika into advertising roles – on both sides of the camera – might at times feel a little contrived, but it’s also important to remember that it didn’t exist only 30 years ago when representations were largely based on the European worldview.

“We unofficially live in the capital city of the South Pacific,” says Bridgwater.

“There are more Polynesians living in this city than anywhere else in the world… And countries that sit on the edge of the world are very interesting places.”

One issue facing worthy and inclusive advertising at the moment, particularly in the advertising space, is the uncomfortable relationship between commercial imperatives and values.

Last year, we saw this come to the fore when investor Terry Smith slammed Unilever for displaying its sustainability credentials at the expense of running the business.

This intervention by an influential fund manager sparked a massive discussion about whether this was a great reckoning of “woke-washing” in media.

That controversy did eventually die down, but the theme continues to raise its head – particularly as economic pressure grows on businesses.

Advertising has always been at the sharp end of that discussion, given that there are few things more capitalist than convincing people to buy one product rather than another.

This makes the nuance between cultural appropriation for corporate gain and legitimate inclusion far trickier.

So how can ad agencies legitimately offer a representation of a diverse country while also delivering on the high expectations of the companies asking them to ship more product?

“We all get a choice about who we want to be, and that’s a big idea,” says Bridgwater, explaining that every corporate can choose the path that they want to follow.

FCB Wellington Managing Director Sean Keaney concurs with Bridgwater on this point, saying that no one is trying to tell business owners what to believe or not.

“We work with companies that are all at different stages [when it comes to inclusivity],” says Keeney.

“Some are not into it at all. Some have a toe in the water. As long as we stay authentic, we have the opportunity to offer insights that can be imbued into the advertising work we’re doing with clients. It’s not about us changing them, but if we bring those insights to the table then maybe.”

While there will always be varied opinions on whether this approach is good or bad for business, FCB’s management says it’s working for them thus far.

The agency recently won the Vodafone media and the Waka Kotahi creative accounts.

These wins are significant and could be seen as indicative of FCB starting to bounce back after a tumultuous few years. But they do come off the back of the agency also losing the lucrative Westpac media account to Publicis Groupe last year.

As things stand, FCB boss Sébastien Desclée says that the headcount at the agency remains roughly on par with where they were when he arrived at the agency a year ago.

As Desclée continues on this journey of trying to imbue advertising with a stronger sense of values, you can rest assured that the public will be keeping a close eye on what his business produces.