When Medibank wanted to sell its message that health insurance could be tailored to individual needs, the marketing team decided to use real people in real situations instead of actors.

This meant steering clear of the white, nuclear family and looking for people who represented Australia today. One in three people in Sydney speak a language other than English at home and one in three people in Australia today was born overseas. 

The result was a unique advertising campaign, “i am better”, which embraced the diversity of modern Australia and featured people who are often ignored in mainstream media and campaigns, including gay dads. 

“Traditional private health insurance advertising and marketing almost exclusively represents a certain section of society: white, Caucasian, mum, dad and the two kids,” says Fiona Le Brocq, Medibank’s general manager brand and marketing.

“We filmed real people in their homes, no hair and makeup, no scripts, which is about as real as it gets in advertising. Medibank’s campaign is an honest depiction of the diversity of Australia today.”

Le Brocq says the company’s decision to embrace difference in all its forms and recognise that people “live and love differently” has paid off in business as well as cultural terms. “By far the response to the campaign has been overwhelming positive,” she says.

But Medibank’s marketing choices are not commonplace. According to Megan Brownlow, editor of PwC’s annual Australian Entertainment & Media Outlook, the lack of diversity in Australian media is holding the industry back. The report found that the average employee working in the entertainment and media sector is 27, male, Caucasian and lives in Sydney’s eastern suburbs or the inner west. The second highest concentration of workers in the sector is in Melbourne’s St Kilda and Richmond.

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“Similar to the world we see depicted by media, entertainment and media businesses do not reflect an Australia that’s becoming more diverse by the day,” Brownlow said when she released the report. “It’s a case of chicken and egg and means the industry is not as well equipped for growth as it should be. 

“Studies have shown diversity improves business outcomes. To move the dial in the entertainment and media industry, greater focus needs to be placed on tackling unconscious bias and similarity attraction in recruitment.” 

A former creative director and ad agency owner, Bec Brideson, advises brands on the commercial advantage of attracting the female consumer and is devoted to challenging stereotypes in advertising. She says that unconscious bias still rules the choices brands make in who to represent them in ads. 

“There are times in my career where I have put up talent options from different ethnicities but big corporates inevitably have that unconscious bias of ‘people like us’ and choose the Wasp-y people,” Brideson says. “All white boards, shareholders etc and no one wants to challenge tradition of non-diverse mindsets.

“It all boils down to the ‘Hollywood gaze’ – the phenomena, where because mostly men are the directors or directors of photography, their natural gaze is one of a male focus. Same in the boardroom.

“Often agencies are asked to find different ethnicities in stock library photography and the problem is just as difficult. Try finding non-cliched images of non-white people. Basically impossible.”

The editor of AdNews, Rosie Baker, says the lack of diversity in advertising is stark, and was reflected in a 2013 study, which found that more than three quarters of the faces in Australian ads are white.

Although a more recent study is not available, Baker says the situation has remained largely the same. “I would say it’s broadly still the case that the output doesn’t reflect the diversity of the population,” Baker says. “If you look at the statistics they just don’t match up with what you see: they tend to be white, middle-class faces in the ads and that’s not what the Australian population is.

Baker says most of the blame is at the feet of the creative agencies who cast the ads but conservative clients can also play a part.

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Television advertising is influential in shaping the way the country sees itself. Although video consumption online has skyrocketed, television still accounts for the vast majority of screen viewing time in Australia – 84.3% – even among young people. In the 18- to 24-year-old demographic, 37 hours and 22 minutes a month is spent watching broadcast TV, according to the 2016 Australian Multi-Screen Report. 

With overall advertising spending forecast to reach $18.7bn by 2020, brands and creatives would be smart to start looking beyond the stereotype of the white Australian traditional family when casting their ads.

But casting is not the only barrier to diversity, according to Thang Ngo, managing director of Identity Communications. He says most of the supermarket ads are for products like bread and milk and feature families sitting around the breakfast table eating cereal, although increasingly the actors have non-white faces. 

“All they’ve done is swapped a Caucasian family with a non-Caucasian family and that doesn’t speak to diversity,” he says. “It’s only visual diversity. It’s like a packet of M&Ms: they are different colours but they all taste the same.

“What about showing Chinese new year? Showing diversity is one thing but celebrating it is another. Is it not better to celebrate multiculturalism by showing Chinese new year and Ramadan?”

Identity, which is part of IPG Mediabrands, works with clients who want to target specific ethnicities. The NSW government is a major client, using advertising to spread health messages to certain communities, for example. 

The director of sales for SBS, Andrew Cook, says he is starting to see some categories feature a better representation of Australia “rather than just truly white in the way they’re using the talent in their advertising”. 

“And we’re also seeing an increase in advertisers wanting to talk to an SBS audience, where they were reluctant or they didn’t feel they needed to in the past,” Cook says.

Cook says retailers are the first to change, followed by automotive and banks. “People realise we have to educate people who are arriving here about Australian brands that don’t exist overseas. Every marketer wants to continue to grow and you can’t keep talking to the same people year after year. You need new people to talk to.”