When it comes to inclusive storytelling in the media and advertising industry, there have been positive developments across the globe: the formation of the U.N.’s Unstereotype Alliance, the banning of harmful gender stereotypes in advertising in the U.K., and a growing advertising equality movement in Australia.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., organizations are collaborating with the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) to champion representation and accurate portrayals of women in the media, marketing and entertainment—although this is yet to make its way into any official legislation. So, why are we still talking about representation in 2023? Simply put, there remains ample work to be done.

While regulations are a great starting point, the ways in which gender bias is portrayed are often so subtle that policing is a difficult task. Everything from grip (think of the "feminine touch" versus a manly grip) to environmental setting (professional or domestic—only 7% of women were portrayed in a professional scene in 2022, down from 16% in 2021) sends messages about social dynamics. However, these initiatives have no bearing on where ad spend is directed, and tellingly, lighter-skinned people and more traditional gender representations have been shown to receive more investment.

Instead of focusing on what is legally necessary, brands can take a step further and proactively shape their creative to authentically represent and speak to diverse audiences, driving trust and building loyalty at the same time.

Representation Today: What Are Brands Doing?

Beyond commercialism, ads have a social and cultural function. Representation shapes how people see themselves, their abilities and their bodies. According to Unicef, the impact of harmful stereotyping can cause low self-esteem and body confidence, present an additional barrier to education and choice of profession, negatively affect health, expressions of gender, and much more.

Many ads—for anything from toys to laundry products and cosmetics—are still heavily gendered, promoting not only outdated views of male and female behaviors but also unrealistic body expectations. The fallout from these unhealthy trends, exacerbated by social media culture and the ubiquity of photo editing and filters, impacts everyone. Pervading our digital spaces, these unattainable physical ideas can give rise to disorders and detrimental behaviors, such as muscle dysmorphia, excessive plastic surgery and weight loss medication.

There have been steps in the right direction, with campaigns addressing issues such as self-esteem and gender bias, revealing how gendered presumptions still restrict professional choices, and providing resources, workshops and guides to plug in these gaps. But with recent research confirming enduring gender disparities in healthcare, early education and domestic (HEED) fields—with only 3% of preschool and kindergarten teachers and 13% of registered nurses accounted for by men—it is clear that brands can, and must, go further to help level the playing field.

Developing A Strategy That Exceeds Contemporary Expectations

There’s no reason brands can’t be explicit about who their target audience is, but they can do so while using a diverse cast of people and targeting beyond superficial traits. This requires a deep understanding—not only of the audience but of how this audience connects with products and brand values. It requires a clear vision of brand purpose. And companies that can align this purpose with consumer expectations will succeed in developing authentic and meaningful creative.

This holistic alignment ensures a brand is accurately promoting the values and ideals that consumers buy into with each purchase. According to one study, an average of 70% of respondents say they buy from brands they believe reflect their own principles.

It’s worth noting that audiences and consumers today have higher expectations when it comes to diversity of representation both in front of and behind the camera. Inclusive marketing requires a fully integrated approach, encompassing hiring and retention as much as advertising products for users of differing interests and needs.

How To Responsibly Build Authentic Creative

By seeking out stories that matter, engaging in active listening and incorporating these insights into both product and campaign development, brands become familiar with real-time consumer wants and needs, checking and eliminating unconscious biases and assumptions at the same time.

Many are very risk-averse when it comes to depicting reality but doing so is essential if brands want to truly relate to real experiences. Consider body hair removal. Only really becoming popular in the early to mid-20th century, it wasn’t until 2018 that brands started showing real body hair in women’s shaving ads. The campaign that finally broke the taboo went viral, but it took nearly a century to happen. Meanwhile, skincare ads rarely depict anything but unblemished skin, which neither invokes confidence in a product nor recognizes the different qualities and textures of skin.

More generally, brands need to embrace practices like gender-neutral marketing and move away from more traditional categorizations of age, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Instead, targeting consumers based on the content consumed not only keeps in line with contemporary privacy-first attitudes but is also more inclusive.

Advertising As A Force For Good

Visual narrative representation in the media can either inspire action and encourage change, or negatively affect mental health and stymie potential.

Brands that want to connect to their audiences through their values and purpose will face more scrutiny when it comes to internal practices and in-house structures. Talking the talk is not enough; there needs to be a clear commitment toward responsibility and diverse representation.

However, this needn’t put anyone off. When developing creative, companies shine when they advertise both accurately and authentically. True representation does not need to come at the expense of resources or aesthetics. In fact, it opens brands up to new audiences and extends possibilities. In the end, a more inclusive approach benefits everyone.

(As published on Forbes)