Advertising Has a Crisis of Apathy and Otherness

Performative activism isn't going to solve a structural industry problem

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Empathy is a skill and, like any skill, it takes practice to get better. And it's a skill needed in the industry. - Credit by Getty Images
Headshot of Yusuf Chuku

When my daughter was just 7 years old, she asked me why the advertising she saw was so bad. Laughing, I told her it took hundreds of people and lots of meetings to make them so bad. Too young to understand my insider humor, she simply shrugged and continued watching TV.

The reason for my joke wasn’t to make her laugh—it was because I couldn’t bear to tell her the truth. I’d have to tell her that the people making decisions about what brands say and the experience she has with them don’t always care the way they should. In fact, many in our industry have spent their entire professional careers actively not caring. They’ve always been able to afford a $4 latte from Starbucks. They’ve never thought about what it would be like to be unable to read. They don’t understand what it’s like to be a 7-year-old Muslim girl with dark skin born to a black father and a brown mother.

The relearning of American history needs to be focused on why “we the people” has never really included all the people.

Growing up the son of Nigerian immigrants in north London, I was taught to consider the feelings of others, to treat people as I expected to be treated, but it didn’t take long for me to learn that this wasn’t applied by many of the white adults in my world. What was clear—from interactions with teachers, with the bus driver, to the family that lived next door—was that they defined me not by who I was, but rather by what I wasn’t. I was defined by my otherness. Otherness is a dangerous thing. Otherness enables inaction when the children of others are locked in cages at the border, when others are imprisoned for years without trial, when others are murdered by police. Or simply when others are underrepresented in, and effectively excluded from, our industry.

The answer to the problem of otherness is not sameness; it’s connectedness. Immersive, deliberate and compassionate connectedness. A connectedness between people that’s embodied in a willingness to embrace empathy. A connectedness to our cultural history, and by that I mean a relearning of American history. And a desire to see new faces connected to leadership in the C-suite.

So how do we embrace empathy? We need to understand that empathy is a skill and, like any skill, it takes practice to get better. We need to forget what we think we know about people and be genuinely curious about them. We need to recognize and set aside our own biases and judgment in order to see the world from another perspective.

The relearning of American history needs to be focused on why “we the people” has never really included all the people. From white supremacy and the institution of slavery to its legacy in the criminal justice system, from Jim Crow laws and the exclusion of black veterans from the GI Bill, to redlining and disparities within the health and education system. All of this needs to be understood and reflected upon.

And to state the now blindingly obvious, yet often ignored, we need more black representation in agencies. However, we can’t mistake presence for power. Power is the ability to change rules of the game, which is written in policies and practices. This means that change only comes when we begin to see more black representation in leadership across key departments.

This all might seem like hard work, but giving a shit is always harder than not. Let’s be honest. Performative activism and a few charitable gestures were never going to solve what is a structural problem. It’s going to involve some uncomfortable conversations, the learning of some hard truths and getting used to some new faces in the C-suite. It’s now ten years since my daughter’s comment. She’s 17 and decided she wants to study medicine like her mom but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to prove to her, one day, that my industry actually cares.


Yusuf Chuku is global chief strategy officer at VMLY&R.
Publish date: June 8, 2020 https://dev.adweek.com/agencies/advertising-has-a-crisis-of-apathy-and-otherness/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT