By Aaron Walton
Photo by Kal Yee
Pose star and Tony award winner Billy Porter set the bar high for authenticity before the Oscars had even begun. He arrived on the Red Carpet in a ball gown tux designed by Project Runway’s Christian Siriano. ‘People are going to be really uncomfortable with my black ass in a ball gown," Porter wrote. "But it’s not anybody’s business but mine." And that was the kind of cultural confidence that shifted the 91st Academy Awards out of its conservative comfort zone and into the 21st century, celebrating talent from communities of color and diverse cultures.
Regina King, the evening’s first winner, built on Porter’s tone-setting style by dedicating her win to Beale Street author James Baldwin. Mr. Baldwin instantly became the top trending search on Google trends, underscoring why representation matters. From the red carpet to the acceptance speeches to the social media conversations, marketers and the ad industry have much to learn from a new Hollywood, particularly about how the powerful role we play as image makers and identity influencers impacts our responsibility to reflect and respect societal change. Here are three key takeaways:
1. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
As humans, we tend to be uncomfortable with the unknown. It’s a survival instinct. It’s why bias, which we all carry in one form or another, acts as a shorthand for sameness which we tend to believe will keep us safe. As marketers, we are obligated to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It is our responsibility to our brands and to consumers to tap into a spectrum of perspectives, psychographics and consumer profiles. Whether it’s gender fluidity in the form of a ball gown tux or understanding the Black-centric social commentaries of an author like James Baldwin, the message from a new generation of diverse talent was unapologetic – particularly in relation to what’s unknown and, therefore, uncomfortable, to dominant-culture leadership. Time to catch up. As advertising and marketing industry diversity programs stumble and fall short of expectations, we too cannot keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. For an industry that prides itself on pop-culture prowess and its ability to laser target individuals in the micro-ist of ways, we have blinders on when it comes to some uncomfortable truths. Our industry doesn’t give credit to culture, it often minimizes the importance of creative contributors from diverse backgrounds, and has turned inclusion into an exercise of consensus instead of a celebration of uniqueness.
2. Practice centering
In spite of D&I efforts, there is very little work being done by clients or agencies when it comes to centering people of color and diverse cultures. Centering is loosely defined as being committed to racial, gender and cultural equity, having diverse stakeholders be in control of resources, and recognizing them for their expertise. The Oscars showed us what centering is and what it is not. Black Panther epitomizes the former while Green Book reflects the latter. Late night host Seth Meyers created an excellent commentary on the White Savior film prototype which, many agree, is how Green Book can be classified. Even when agencies add multicultural talent to their teams, they do little to empower them to lead, or even to simply engage, from a cultural POV. On a positive note, one can look at the work aired by Verizon during the Oscars, specifically the unsubtitled Spanish language work, an Oscar first, and see what centering looks like. While not all Latinos are Spanish speakers, the brand had the cultural courage to unapologetically communicate with those within the community who are; to put their voice center stage without worrying about backlash from an intolerant, often monolingual subset of consumers. Stop thinking of resources like the proverbial pie with a finite number of slices. Cultural fluency expands us all and, with this commitment to growth, opportunities multiply and there are more than enough to go around. The pie gets larger.
3. Why "winclusion" matters
If there was ever any doubt about the influence of culture on the psyche of millennials and Boomers alike, one need only listen to Rami Malek, Regina King, Hannah Beachler, Spike Lee, and Spiderman’s Peter Ramsey and Phil Lord, among others. While they may be celebrities today, each of these winners was once a child, standing in front of a mirror and dreaming about what winning an Oscar would be like. And they all wondered why they never saw anyone like themselves represented. "Winclusion" is not just access, it’s advancement and an ability to assume roles worthy of awards – the kind of awards that make history and give voice to those who are often unrepresented and marginalized both in front of and behind the camera. How is your organization rewriting the rules of inclusion, reframing the idea so it’s not just an invitation to a club whose rules and values are already set in stone, leaving little room for authenticity and cultural confidence?
During a Black History Month fraught with politicians wearing black face and other ignorant offenses, the Oscars managed to demonstrate that progress can be made and respect can be paid. Was it a seismic shift or an anomaly? Time will tell. What is clear is that diverse storytellers, and the consumers they inspire, are done asking for permission to be a part of the societal fabric they influence and impact in the most innovative ways. And those same cultural champions, and the communities with which they connect, are putting our industry on notice as well. Uncomfortable? Good. You should be.
Aaron Walton is a founding partner of Walton Isaacson.