December 8, 2017

The Power of Advertising Places New Archetypes within Reach

When God-is Rivera took the stage during VML's 25th anniversary celebration in Kansas City, she didn't start with a hello, but with a challenge: "So, let's do an experiment," she said.

Using audible pauses, she rattled off scenarios: "Picture a TV commercial with a family. A person graduating college. And a person starting a new job."

Chances are, she said, even if the audience identifies as members of minority groups, most likely they still imagined a set of stock images of Caucasians -- that's the power of the $207 billion spent on advertising each year in the United States.

Rivera has made a difference everywhere she's worked. She executed ad campaigns and social media for iCrossing and T3 for 10 years before joining VML's social media team in 2016. Her dedication to centralizing the marginalized was quickly apparent, and after about a year she was appointed director of inclusion and cultural resonance.

In this position, Rivera will use her talents to focus on diversity in hiring practices and ensuring greater inclusion within the workplace as well as in VML's output.

It seems that advertising dollars are being spent on commercials that favor their mostly white, male, heteronormative creators -- but Rivera isn't saying that slant is always a conscious decision, although there are times it certainly is. It is also natural for people to favor themselves in representation, she said. But, in favoring themselves, those who do not fit the archetype are unintentionally marginalized.

Rivera explained to the audience that while having default images of "normal" people chiseled into our brains seems harmless enough, it does have real-life ramifications. It's these unconscious biases that work for or against people when they're interviewing for a job, applying for a loan or preparing for the grave reality of whether a police officer is going to pull the trigger.

Now that social media connects the world, marginalized groups are raising their hands and demanding to be included in the conversation that is mass media. Because nearly everyone has access to nearly everything, Rivera said, "we no longer have the luxury of excluding anyone."

The good news? We can identify the images and ideas that have become entrenched in the culture, and we know advertising works really well as a persuasive tool to push ideas into the mainstream. That is, if ads can be inadvertently used for exclusion, they can be purposely used for inclusion.

"I'm asking for your courage to resist the default and then redefine it to welcome us all," Rivera said.

God-is Rivera spoke at VML's Sterling Sessions, an event timed to coincide with VML's 25th anniversary, that featured national thought leaders and marketing luminaries contemplating what's next for our industry and beyond. To see more from the Sterling Sessions, visit