Why advertising needs to start taking class seriously

Clichés around what different classes might eat or drink do nothing to solve the very real issue of social mobility in the ad industry, says Dan Cullen-Shute, CEO at Creature London. In fact they just make it worse

The world moves pretty fast on #AdTwitter (although not quite fast enough for it to have yet become #AdX). I was off for the first week of the year, and missed everyone getting their boxers in a twist over whether or not sticking the smouldering guy from The Bear in some pants and getting him to smoulder was a good thing or not. (Spoiler alert: of course it was a good thing, you daft bastards.)

I did, though, get back just in time to see people reacting to a piece that asked planners to break out of their bubble by (brace yourselves) dropping into GB News every now and again as well as reading the Guardian, and “finding something to love about Trump”. And for a certain adver-marketing ‘legend’ (inverted commas mine, not his) to add that advertising as a whole needs to break out of its middle-class bubble by (re-brace, or just continue to be braced if you haven’t yet unbraced) going to the football instead of the opera, or even (you know the drill) by drinking beer instead of white wine.

I’ll be honest, I don’t mind the original piece. Yes, there’s a whiff of segment-tourism about it (an approach pioneered by one agency who famously garnered headlines for proudly sending a planner to Scarborough for the day), but it does at least acknowledge that the world we agency folk live in is not the real world. Much as I’d love to claim otherwise, when the Covid-catalysed rise of hybrid working gave our industry the chance to break out of its heavily London-centric urban bubble, we – for the most part – seem to have decided not to really bother seeing that one through.

And even if we had, living in – to pick a random example – a little village outside Ilkley in Yorkshire wouldn’t give us an innate understanding of people who live in Silsden any more than living in Notting Hill makes you a character in Kidulthood. So yes. Break out of your bubble. Read different things. Acknowledge that while you may think Ricky Gervais is (to quote a Guardian review of his recent Netflix special, Armageddon) someone who has “lost the ability to make a dent in the mainstream”, literally millions of people watched that Golden-Globe-winning special; and remember that it’s OK if some people thought the Barbie movie was just a really long, really expensive, toy ad.

I find it less easy, though, to make any kind of peace with that follow up: the tweet that suggests the way to break out of your “middle-class bubble” is to drink beer instead of wine, go to the football instead of the opera, to “eat pie & mash” instead of going to restaurants. Because that, it would appear, is how we are supposed to define the working-class experience – a slightly worse, less ‘couth’ version of what middle-class folk do.

Worried you’re out of touch with your target consumer? You don’t need to buy a train ticket, or even change the TV channel – you can just order something cheaper, and go somewhere a bit shitter. Hey presto, authenticity unlocked, clear some space for the APG: the (streaky) bacon is being brought home.

And yes, it’s a tweet, it’s a blunt instrument, and maybe I’m the fool for looking for nuance: but I worry that it’s representative of a general lack of understanding of what not being middle-class really means in advertising, which speaks to a much bigger, arguably existential problem.

Imagine how much more effective planning departments would be in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis if they were full of people that had actually experienced hardship?

While there will always be arguments about whether enough is being done, and whether progress is being made fast enough, there’s no arguing that advertising has found its voice when it comes to gender and ethnic diversity; and with brilliant organisations like Outvertising and Queer Ad Folk leading the conversation, huge progress is being made for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

But class, and social mobility, continue to be advertising’s stumbling block. And it’s a very real problem, because socio-economic background is genuinely intersectional: get our heads round that, and we can change the face (and voice) of the industry from the ground up. We talk a lot about the value of lived experience – imagine how much more effective planning departments would be in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis if they were full of people that had actually experienced hardship?

The good news, of course, is that there are people trying to do the right thing, if you look hard enough. The membership of Common People, a gathering of industry people from working class backgrounds, founded by the brilliant Lisa Thompson and Jed Hallam, now has almost 1,000 members, and can be a powerful resource for agencies looking to get this audience right, as well as an important haven for people who might otherwise have felt that this industry wasn’t for them. Campaign magazine is this year asking agencies for the first time whether they are living wage accredited – a small but important step on the road to ensuring that we have an industry for everyone, not just the privileged few.

It’s not enough to understand, we need to represent; it’s not enough to listen, we need to reflect. And let’s stop representing the working class experience as not understanding wine

It’s also worth acknowledging that this isn’t a challenge unique to the advertising industry: the world of creativity has long had a problematic relationship with the working classes. Happy to fetishise their world in pursuit of profit, and to stylise it in pursuit of credibility (spoiler alert: not going to private school doesn’t mean you’re working class). But hey. Let’s fix what we can, shall we?

So yes. For now, if you’re a planner, step outside of your bubble – but also, agencies, think about what you can do to break it entirely. Because as I write this, the IPA are publishing the results of their 2023 census, which show that while the gender pay gap and the number of women in the C-suite is moving in the right direction, the ethnicity pay gap is not, and nor is the number of people of colour in the industry full stop, let alone at the top of it. And socio-economic background? The ‘class question’? Doesn’t even make the exec summary.

Understanding our audiences better is an Elastoplast; it’s a short-term solution, a finger in the dam, and in the long term, it just won’t do. It’s not enough to understand, we need to represent; it’s not enough to listen, we need to reflect. And in the meantime, let’s just stop lazily representing the working class experience as not understanding wine and not knowing which fork to use. It’s ignorant, it’s offensive, and in an industry that lives or dies on how well it understands people, it’s downright dangerous.

Dan Cullen-Shute is co-founder and CEO at Creature London;