Study Finds Super Bowl Ad Creators Overwhelmingly White

But Cyrus Mehri, NAACP's Press Attention for Findings Prompts Criticism by 4A's for Lack of Agency Dialogue

By Published on . 23

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The Madison Avenue Project held a press conference today to release a study pointing out that the agency creative directors behind this year's Super Bowl commercials were overwhelmingly white. But at least one industry representative said the press-first strategy is doing little to help diversity efforts.

Cyrus Mehri (left) and Laura Blackburne (right) at the Madison Avenue Project press conference today.
Cyrus Mehri (left) and Laura Blackburne (right) at the Madison Avenue Project press conference today.
The study comes from Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. It finds that for the 58 spots in which the study was able to identify the creative team, 92% of the creative directors were white males, 7% were white females and one lone creative director was Latino. The Latino was not an agency employee, but the winner of Doritos' consumer contest.

There were actually 67 total spots, though TIDES was not able to find the race and gender of every creative director. In at least one discrepancy, agency founder Guy Barnett was counted as a creative for The Brooklyn Brothers' KGB spot (though one executive familiar with the matter says that the copywriter and art director are two white males). Mr. Barnett declined to comment.

The press conference is the latest move from civil rights lawyer Cyrus Mehri and Laura Blackburne, general counsel for the NAACP. Mr. Mehri's law firm and the NAACP are investigating a class-action suit against the ad industry for discrimination. Since forming the Madison Avenue Project, the team has filed charges against ad companies with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Agency involvement
While the study highlights the ad industry's longstanding problem with diversity, it is also keeping that discrimination investigation in the headlines. This attention, paired with a lack of dialogue with agency leadership, could hinder real change, said American Association of Advertising Agencies CEO Nancy Hill.

"I think it makes it difficult, especially if agencies aren't invited to have a discussion," Ms. Hill, the only agency representative at the press conference today, said of the project's press-first strategy. "It makes it feel like [the Madison Avenue Project] doesn't want to have a conversation."

Mr. Mehri said none of the agencies responsible for Super Bowl spots were explicitly invited, though he pointed to Ms. Hill's attendance. Ms. Hill said she was not invited, but found out about the public event through other channels.

NAACP general counsel Laura Blackburne
NAACP general counsel Laura Blackburne
When asked if the lawsuit's news coverage has indeed closed off conversation with agencies, Ms. Blackburne called that response "bull." "Harder to have a conversation?" she said. "Please."

The study focused on only on lead creative directors behind the commercials, not producers, account executive or chief marketers on the client side. Data for the study was obtained from direct contact with agencies and websites of Ad Age sibling Creativity and Ads of the World. The study lists each spot, the agency, the creative directors and those individuals' races and genders.

The study called out offensive ads for perpetuating stereotypes. Among those was Flo TV's "Injury Report" from Spokane, Wash.-based Magner Sanborn and Los Angeles-based Agency 3.0 for its negative portrayals of controlling women, and Anomaly, New York's "Megan Fox" spot for Motorola that portrays the actress as a sex symbol in a bathtub.

"Clearly we're disappointed they feel this way," said Jason DeLand, co-founder and partner of Anomaly. "We recognize that diversity is one of the most important issues in our industry. We take great pride in our effort to create a diverse agency and would welcome a dialog with the NAACP to further our shared commitment."

Mr. Lapchick's graduate students say one agency that did it right was St. Louis shop Cannonball for Bud Light spots that cast minorities in lead roles. Volkswagen's "Punch Dub" from Deutsch, Los Angeles, was cited as another good example. It ended with cameos from black celebrities Tracy Morgan and Stevie Wonder. Creatives from both these agencies were also white men.

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