Tapping into the Zeitgeist: #OscarsSoWhite Makes its Mark on Hollywood and Beyond

In our post, “After OscarsSoWhite, Now What?” we discussed just how far the movie industry had to go to reflect global diversity. Fast forward one year, it’s hard to disagree the 2017 Oscars were dazzling for people of color. Six black actors and Indian-Englishman, Dev Patel, vied for major acting awards, winning two. Moonlight, an independent film based on a semi-autobiographical play about the coming of age of a young, gay black man in Florida–which had no featured Caucasian characters–won Best Picture, upsetting what people thought was a sure thing for La La Land. African American actor, Mahershala Ali, won Best Supporting Actor for Moonlight, making him the first Muslim to win an acting Oscar. The response to the film’s win was a wider release; it was announced following the awards Moonlight was set to open on 1500 screens nationwide. The much admired and beautiful Viola Davis, a dark-complected actress who has spoken publicly about her body and hair insecurity, gave an impassioned acceptance speech upon her Best Supporting Actress win for Fences, again expressing her wonder at coming from abject poverty to a place in the spotlight. Another work, Erza Edelman and Caroline Waterlow’s Best Documentary Feature win, OJ: Made in America, while evoking sad and disquieting subject matter, tapped zeitgeist issues of race and justice and fame.

In response, voices we’d heard loudly in 2016 were hopeful, yet measured. April Reign, whose ubiquitous 2016 hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite, became an energizing rallying cry, pointed out that we have to be vigilant about inclusion of not only black faces and voices, but all the colors and circumstances that make up the real world. Her twitter post noted: “One year of films reflecting the Black experience doesn’t make up for 80 yrs of underrepresentation of ALL groups.” And realistically, the films we enjoyed this year were in production or pre-production for years before their release dates. So what gives?

#OscarsSoWhite undoubtedly was influential. In response to the outcry, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, planted seeds of change by successfully leading a campaign to diversify the voting membership. The hashtag also threw light on a small and specific film like Moonlight, and helped make Hidden Figures a box office smash, surpassing La La Land domestically by $17 million as of today. As several people have pointed out, however, the power structure in Hollywood hasn’t changed yet and remains predominantly white and male, but there’s no denying the door has been cracked open.

The phenomenal success of multi-cultural series television and online programming, and the growing population of millennials and those who will come after are propelling the rhythm of contemporary culture. Not only are millennials a more accepting generation, they are also more pragmatic about the long-term necessity of diversity. Shows like black-ish, Atlanta, Fresh Off the Boat, Scandal, Empire and Insecure explore sometimes real (controversial and painful) and sometimes outlandish themes. Why are these shows so popular, drawing large and diverse audiences? Because content is key. Millennials are interested in unique content providing an experience, over anything. (That’s kind of what all viewers want.) And millennials would like their ads to look the same, thank you.

The ad world has determined it’s content celebrating diversity as a central theme that has made the most successful campaigns in the last five years. Diversity casting is important, but it’s what advertising depicts and says that works — millennials respond to an experience and a theme reflecting the world they inhabit. They are also paying attention to what your company is doing with their profits, and what your company culture is like. And since they are the most diverse audience in history with purchasing power of over $1 Trillion annually, they can’t be painted with a broad brush. Mainly, they want to be authentically engaged or entertained by companies with some social consciousness.

I’ve always known TV had its finger on the pulse, and as the audience goes, so go the advertisers. We are moving forward.

Questions to consider:

  1. How well are advertisers doing when it comes to including diverse talent in media campaigns?
  2. How well are advertisers doing when it comes to tackling issues outside of racial diversity, such as gender, age and ableism?
  3. How has Millennials’ acceptance of diversity, in its broadest expression (i.e., race, socio-economics, gender expression, etc.), as the norm, influenced marketing to this coveted community?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *