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  • Writer's pictureDonal Horgan

Ireland’s Adland Activists

Updated: Apr 16



Who remembers Dylan Mulvaney?

 

American brewing giant Anheuser-Busch, the company behind Bud Light, probably have more reason than most to remember. After all, the advertising campaign built around Mulvaney triggered a public backlash which saw sales fall by 30% and $15.7bn wiped off the market value of the company in 2023.

 

For the record, Mulvaney a biological male who identifies as a transwoman was the face of a high profile advertising campaign by Anheuser-Busch in March 2023. No doubt the idea of a transwoman fronting an advertising campaign for popular beer Bud Light sounded like a good idea at the time especially to the advertising people who came up with it. However, the same campaign backfired spectacularly with the American public meaning it ultimately did untold reputational damage to Bud Light.

 

The Mulvaney/Bud Light debacle shines a light on a somewhat overlooked theatre of war in what is increasingly a global culture war – namely Adland. The advertising landscape that we experience on a daily basis is no longer about merely informing us about consumer products and their price. Today, Adland reflects the culture and politics of a society as much as it informs us about this week’s special offers in the local supermarket.

 

It's a topic that’s now as relevant in Ireland as it is in America. Speaking of which - the biggest issue in Adland Ireland these days would appear to be a belief that there are too many recognisably Irish people in Irish ads. The belief that advertising should reflect a changing Ireland appears to be driving this. In essence, this is as much a political activist view as it is an advertising trade view.

 

That a country’s advertising imagery should reflect that country is a reasonable view but is this really what Adland Ireland is now doing? Considering that the most recent 2022 census returns put Ireland’s black population at just 1.5% it would appear that black representation in Irish advertising is now a multiple of what it actually is in the Irish population.


Take drinks giant Diageo’s recent 2023 advert for its Rockshore lager. The 30 second ad called ‘Refreshingly Irish’ purports to showcase its lager in a variety of settings which reflect today's Ireland. As part of this, the representation of ethnic Africans would appear to be wildly disproportionate to what the most recent census returns would suggest.

 

The vexed question of representation based on race and ethnicity is especially evident in adverts relating to the GAA. It would appear that Adland Ireland now views the world of Gaelic games as some sort of cultural trophy which has to be delivered on a plate before the high altar of a woke ideology based on diversity and inclusion. The emerging rule of thumb in many GAA-related ads now appears to be that about one in three of those featured should be ethnic Africans or otherwise not recognisably Irish.

 

Judge for yourself this 2023 Bord Gáis Energy ad about the game of hurling. Called ‘It’s Anyone’s Game’, this 30 second television  ad in its own words seeks ‘to champion hurling across the country, promote positive discussion around inclusivity and demonstrate that hurling is a place for everyone.’ High minded and noble these aspirations may be but you have to ask if this is simply another rehash of some progressive activist vision for Irish society rather than an accurate reflection of the GAA and Gaelic games in Irish society today.

 

Underpinning all advertising is the need for accuracy and truthfulness. This applies not just in terms of what is being offered to the consumer but also in terms of the accompanying imagery.  It begs the simple question - is Adland now reflecting an Ireland that exists or is it projecting some make believe vision of a country as envisaged by people who appear to be allowing their political activism get the better of them.



Neither is it part of some racist trope to question the disproportionate use of groups in advertisements based on nothing more than their ethnicity. In fact, it could be argued that the disproportionate use of such people based on nothing more than their ethnicity is racist to begin with.

 

The idea that Adland – just like RTÉ or the Irish mainstream media – is really made up of people ‘just like us’ and so is only reflecting popular sentiment is something that needs to be questioned.

 

In 2023, TAM Ireland published a fascinating study which looked at how those in Ireland’s Adland compared to the general population in terms of demographics and TV viewing habits.  The findings showed that Ireland's Adland was heavily weighted towards Dublin with 77% of respondents living there compared to 28% of the general population. It also showed Adland to have a younger age profile with 57% of those in the age demographic 25 – 44 compared to 36% of the general population.

 

The study also showed Adland to be marginally more female than the general population. Another interesting finding related to TV viewing habits. It transpires that Adland watches considerably less television than the rest of the population. This results in the somewhat extraordinary situation whereby Adland collectively is less likely than the rest of the population to consume the advertising content which it is responsible for creating!

 

The same people were also less likely to watch live television in front of a conventional television set and more likely to watch it via the internet. Not surprisingly for this age cohort, Adland was also more likely to use streaming services and social media than the rest of the population.

 

Overall, what strikes the observer is how closely Adland’s demographic corelates to that of the classic woke demographic. In political terms, you could well imagine Adland voting solidly for a Holly Cairns led Social Democrats more so than any other Irish political party.

 

The question of the representation and indeed, over representation of groups based on ethnicity and race in advertising is by no means confined to Ireland. Nigeria, an overwhelmingly ethnic African country with a less than 1% white population, had a similar issue with the disproportionate over representation of whites in its advertising landscape.


Interestingly, in 2022 Nigeria became one of the first countries in the world to pass laws banning such advertising practices. In doing so, it's unclear if Nigeria was just shoring up the position of its own local advertising industry or if it was seeking to address the wider cultural issues around the disproportionate use of a particular ethnic group in its advertising imagery. Either way, the move shone a light on an aspect of Adland that few in the advertising sector like to talk about.

 

Perhaps the real lesson from the Dylan Mulvaney debacle is that activism in advertising is a high risk undertaking which can have all sorts of unintended outcomes. Bringing your political activism to work is not always something that is guaranteed to go down well. At the very least, it carries the risk of undermining public trust not just in the product or idea being sold but also in the advertising industry associated with selling it.

 

Think of the activist house painter who insists on painting the latest iteration of the Progress Pride flag on the front of your newly painted house and you’ll quickly realise that most people are distinctly iffy about mixing activism and work.


It's something that Adland Ireland could do well to remember. 

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