4 tips to make your campaign imagery more diverse

Photograph of Medical Illustrator Chidiebere Ibe. Next to the photograph is a medical illustration by Ibe of a cross-section of a pregnant black woman and black foetus in the womb.

Diverse images can be powerful.

Seeing Medical Illustrator Chidiebere Ibe’s image of a black foetus reminded me of just how much. It’s a brilliant example of how diverse representation can literally be life-saving.

Ibe’s image went viral on social media in late 2021 and he has since created a range of groundbreaking illustrations. Like many others, I had never seen an image of a black foetus in this way and didn’t realise until I saw it, how absent black and brown skin tones are in medical literature. The impact of representation in this context, Ibe explains, humanises experience across a wider spectrum and can lead to improved healthcare outcomes. 

The effect of some illnesses can show up differently in black or brown skin tones compared to lighter ones. As a patient, seeing your skin tone reflected in this context might encourage you to investigate symptoms or see a doctor sooner. For medical students and health professionals, seeing these kinds of images in training resources can help ensure accurate diagnoses for more patients and avoid bias in recommended treatment. You can hear more from Ibe in his TedTalk.

There are also many who, inspired by Ibe’s work, might pursue a profession in a field they might not have otherwise considered. Seeing yourself reflected in images is one of the most basic principles to address the challenge of ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’.

Despite best intentions, in an effort to be diverse, some images in the internal communications and external marketing industries can miss the mark. What was meant to be empowering and inspiring ends up clumsy and contrived.

So how can we avoid this in government?

1. Be authentic

Do I believe this? Is it genuine? When listening to any story, so much of how we engage with it depends on whether we think it’s credible. Campaign imagery presents more of a challenge given the element of knowing. Having consented to participate, the person photographed/recorded knows they’re featuring in a campaign. Similarly, the audience knows they’re watching a (paid for) advert, and that the person in the advert is likely to be reading from a script. It’s important to create as much of a sense of authenticity within these parameters, unless your campaign content is intentionally comedic or escapist.

This is why organic, behind the scenes-style campaign footage often ends up engaging people positively. It shows a glimpse of something that feels more real. Many brands include these clips for a stronger sense of ‘truth’. Doing this can also show respect for the intelligence of your audience.

With that in mind, whether it’s video or stills, showing people in their natural environment with minimal staging is a good start. When it comes to directing people, let them speak in their own voice. Don’t worry about showing someone in pensive, non-smiley mode, if that’s what comes naturally. Equally, it doesn’t have to be a frown-fest. It comes back to being authentic. If you’re forcing a certain expression, emotion or emphasis, it will probably show. A sense of what’s natural needs to be carefully balanced with delivering your campaign message effectively.

Government campaign stories or ‘case studies’ are filled with passionate people who share their experience in a natural and engaging way. Think about the versatility of this content. Is someone’s story you used for a previous campaign still relevant now? Consent-permitting, can it be used again? It’s a practical and cost-efficient method worth doing if you can’t start from scratch.

2. Avoid reinforcing stereotypes

This can make or break audience engagement. Or worse, damage your organisation’s reputation. 

Focusing on the person first, rather than emphasising their perceived difference can help avert this. Unless it’s relevant to your campaign, consider whether you need to represent, for example, all protected characteristics, which could seem like box-ticking.

Instead, a few quality and well-thought out images that complement your campaign narrative is better than image overload. Showing diversity for its own sake isn’t or shouldn’t be the goal. Instead, keep referring to your SMART objectives and OASIS plan. Think about what you are trying to achieve with your communications overall. How effectively is this imagery contributing to that whilst also being representative?

Disability is an area which often perpetuates negative stereotypes, particularly the ‘hero, victim or villain’ trope. To help address this, Centre for Ageing Better teamed up with Get Yourself Active at Disability Rights UK to create a free image bank challenging traditionally negative stereotypes of older and disabled people. Disability Rights UK CEO Kamran Mallick said: 

“Picture Yourself Active is such an exciting project. It ensures that many more representative images are available to show Disabled people getting active. We want to see organisations take on the project’s learning and advice to ensure that our lives are no longer reduced to lazy stereotypes”.

I also found the bold, tongue-in-cheek titled, New Stereotypes Available campaign, from 2019, a refreshing take on diverse images that represent modern society.

Another striking example of diversity in practice for me is the shift in online consumer retail images. Seeing traditionally marketed body types as well as unfiltered scars, stretch marks and a range of sizes and shapes is now becoming commonplace enough to almost be the norm – a step in the right direction.  

3. Produce, test and learn with a diverse team

Diversity at the point of creation and concept is crucial. It broadens perspectives, challenges assumptions and can prevent bias from creeping into your initial idea.

Reach out to networks across your organisation to incorporate wide-ranging views. Make sure you and your team do your research and know your target audience, and the audience you’re trying to depict, if different. Who better to give insight into how reflective of an audience an image is than the audience themselves? You and your colleagues won’t always be your target audience or the audience you’re depicting, which is why testing your assets is so important.

It’s likely that you will commission your research agency to find out how your target audience perceives your proposed content. Ensure your research participants represent:

  • the people featured in your images, where possible
  • your target audience

Brief your agency specifically on whose opinion you’re seeking. 

What’s the age range/gender/income/lifestyle you are interested in? Challenge your agency to be specific when recruiting. If met with a research brief broadly stating ‘neurodiverse’ or ‘ethnic’ participants, replace this generalised labelling with specifics. 

Think about which particular ethnicity you are interested in and why. Pakistani? Black British? Given the cultural, linguistic, and media consumption differences within each of these two ethnicities alone, it’s worth identifying more valuable ways of classifying your research participants. Perhaps by overlaying with location, economic or attitudinal data. And which neurodivergent audience(s) are you most interested in? People with dyslexia? On the autistic spectrum? Always keep nuance in mind. Classifying people into homogeneous groups when defining your research participants is limiting. Recognising their distinct differences will make your insights richer.

This checklist from Campaign Monitor is another excellent starting point:

  • Who is missing or excluded? 
  • Would I want to be portrayed this way? 
  • If this was a photo of me or someone I love, would I be okay with how they are represented?
  • Are any stereotypes being perpetuated in the photo I am using? 
  • Am I depicting someone in the role our culture typically puts them in or making a more unexpected choice? 
  • Can everyone who might view the photo see someone like themselves represented in it?

If you have made a strong case for pre-campaign research and for whatever reason, don’t have the budget or have a tight deadline, look in-house. In my department, there’s a range of helpful networks which I’ve consulted to recruit research participants, often at short notice; Neurodiversity, LGBTQI+, Race and Social Mobility to name a few.

4. Match images with words

The value of having a diverse set of images can be easily undermined if the text doesn’t match. Make sure your choice of words syncs with your image’s intent. This is where your research findings are invaluable. Test perception of the images alongside your campaign message(s). Do the images and words align or jar? In what way? What would participants prefer to see? Why? Are the words, colours, images and layout clear and accessible? Check GCS’s guidance on accessibility.

Campaign imagery has come a long way as far as diversity goes. Marketing and communications tend to evolve at a slower rate than the society it describes. When done well, they challenge us to address preconceived notions of others and set a new normal. 

Diverse representation plays a huge role in this and has a ripple effect across the campaign life cycle. Our campaign outcomes will only be as sophisticated as the forethought of our strategy. 

From media buying and audience targeting to research and evaluation, the more broadly and intelligently we reflect diversity in our images and language, the more inclusive and engaging our communications will be. 

Go further

Some helpful articles for more tips on how to make your campaigns diverse:

    Image credit:
  • Chidiebere Ibe Instagram: @ebereillustrate (1)