The rise of creative, original content that is seemingly beginning to reflect the demographics of the audience through casting has led many people to think about diversity in Hollywood. Shows like FX’s Atlanta, HBO’s Insecure, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, and Amazon’s Transparent, among many others, showcase content that not only casts diverse actors, but also develop the characters and plotlines beyond stereotyped, typecast roles. But how far does diversity in entertainment really go? And does our definition of it have to change as content changes?
The answer to these questions lies in advertising. Corporations paying for an audience’s attention through advertisements has traditionally been the backbone of television content. However, if the advertisements being played don’t match the message of the content, or alternatively, the ads stereotypically link to the viewers who are believed to be watching a show, then can real change be made? I watched an episode of Atlanta, a show that has made an effort to showcase African American talent, without being marketed as a “black” show but rather entertainment about life, relationships, and self identity, narrated and carefully pointing toward some of the larger cultural issues and social divisions in America. I paid specific attention to the advertisements being played as I streamed the content online. I found that while Atlanta itself makes a commitment to cast diverse actors and an all African American writing team, the commercials mostly reflected white couples, other TV shows and movies featuring white male leads, or ads that showed “ethnically ambiguous” models that attempt to market toward the largest possible audience.
So what does this mean, then, for your identity as a consumer of entertainment and your identity as a consumer of goods—the latter the arguably more powerful identity in today’s world? If narrative and shows themselves are meant to reflect truths in ourselves and our situations in life, then shouldn’t the most powerful kind of identity we create for ourselves, in an increasingly social and curated world of images, match the kinds of narratives being created? Advertising’s constant desire to appeal to certain markets defines the types of people attracted to and deflected from a show, arguably as much as the content of the show itself.
This also doesn’t mean that streaming services or subscription-based models are exempt from the considerations of diversity in advertising. In fact, advertising models in these services, like subtle brand placement or targeted advertising from web data, have the potential to separate even further the kinds of entertainment we are exposed to. If we can’t see how advertisements are working on us or how corporations are trying to sell and appeal to demographics, then we can’t see how the precarious relationship between brands and content is leaving certain audiences out and drawing others in. What happens, then, if the corporations themselves become the sole producers of content and networks eventually cease to exist?
The biggest problem lies in the ways in which corporations speak about diversity. Showing minorities in advertisements and on television is often spoken about in terms of appealing to a larger market. Reports like those from Nielsen outline how African Americans are more aggressive consumers of media and bigger consumers of products. For brands and advertisers, diversity has to be spoken about in terms of commodification in order to be relevant. First off, numbers like these don’t account for the larger social, historic, and economic climate that creates data like this. Second, this kind of language explains the tokenism of minorities on television. GLAAD’s report on diversity for television for 2016–2017 reflects this. Although LGBTQ characters and characters of color were represented, they were disproportionately killed off or put in non-speaking roles. If we talk about identity in economic terms, a niche and artificial creation of content and advertising will be put forth. Could an increase in dramatic performances of racial identity, not intended to subvert but rather to uphold systemic beliefs, create a more niche, commodified, artificial package of comfortable diversity? It’s more important than ever to address these issues from within the accessible arena of entertainment and to begin thinking about not only what is shown on screen, but the language we use to create it.