Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

How technology is driving inclusive representation in advertising

By Patrick Kane, Catalyst Fellow at Wunderman Thompson

An IBM training manual said in 1991 that “for people without disabilities, technology makes things easier (but)… for people with disabilities, technology makes things possible.” While the technology that IBM were referring to is likely to be obsolete now, the possibilities offered by modern technology are proving this to be true and more exciting than ever.  

As a disabled person who has recently entered the advertising industry, I’m encouraged to see that brands and agencies are making the most of new technologies to properly address diversity and inclusion. By ‘properly’ I mean that representation isn’t reduced to an act of tokenism, patronisation or exploitation but instead illuminates real challenges with real stories – and elevates them to the public spaces in which they need to be seen.

Indeed, there are many recent campaigns that thoughtfully and appropriately include disabled people. The award-winning design work for Unilever’s Degree ‘Inclusive’ deodorant and the ‘A Very Big Caveat’ campaign show that when done correctly, there is huge potential to tap into this audience with great impact.

Seeing diversity differently

Of course, disability is just one area of consideration. Historically speaking, the marketing and advertising sector characterised diversity in terms of simply gender and race. Today, there is general recognition that diversity encompasses all the caveats which make up an individual’s character, including ability, culture, social background, sexuality, habits – the list goes on.

In the communications industry especially, diversity is paramount since we speak across the whole of society, which is the foundation of diversity itself. Our differences of experience need to be seen as superpowers. By inviting them into all aspects of our work, we gain the potential to create meaningful campaigns that speak to everyone. In turn, audiences are given the assurance of being seen, heard, listened to, and catered for.

So, how is technology helping us to achieve this?

Put simply, it’s enabling change.

The COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrated how quickly and easily we can adapt. It forced us to confront the importance of accessible working – with businesses across the world having an enforced period to trial the kind of format that the disabled community had been calling out for. Trying to convince many business owners that accessible working was possible, let alone desirable, would have been a mammoth challenge before 2020, yet we now have the tangible proof that not only does it work, but it is here to stay. An Ipsos survey for the World Economic Forum found that almost a fifth of the global workforce think their work habits will never return to what they were before 2020.

It’s technology that makes this kind of progress possible. Accessible working isn’t the first example whereby something that is essential for disabled people has become mainstream for those who aren’t. There is a long history of inventions following this trend; the typewriter was invented so that a blind person could send letters to distant family members, and the touch screen was also developed for those who struggled to press individual buttons. 

When these inventions were created, it may not have been instantly obvious what the mainstream commercial applications would be, but the possibilities of increased accessibility will always benefit the many, as well as the few. 

Inclusive content with the help of AI

Looking back at the previous success stories sheds light on future successes. With diversity and inclusion at the top of the agenda in today’s experience economy, brands want to be more relevant to more people, whilst juggling the countless channels that they interact with. Thanks to AI and machine learning, brands can now address the diversity and accessibility of their content and assure both its quality and consistency.

Tools like WPP Open Brand Guardian created by Wunderman Thompson are helping brands steer inclusive representation at much greater speed and scale than has been possible before. It connects with creative toolsets and reviews assets such as images, videos and text to provide insights on how inclusive and accessible they are. This means that D&I can be baked into the creative process from the very beginning, helping brands drive better representation throughout their work.

It has long been said that necessity is the mother of invention. This remains true, but the rate of change and breadth of invention we are seeing shows that we are finally becoming aware of just how necessary change is. As tools like AI become commonplace, it is our communal responsibility to ensure accessibility is entrenched in their DNA, so that we can build brands that resonate with and connect to all our customers.