Cultural Sensitivity in Modern Advertising: The Role of a Creative Director in Ensuring Inclusivity
Advertising has become a powerful medium for communicating brand stories in today’s rapidly globalizing world.
However, the heightened responsibility that comes with such an extended reach is equally important. It is no longer possible to design ads for a single audience; modern consumers demand representation, understanding, and respect
Brands today cater to a diverse, global audience. Within hours, a campaign launched in New York can resonate in New Delhi. Because of the digital age’s interconnectedness, ads are now seen, scrutinized, and shared by a diverse demographic with different cultural nuances.
This evolution in consumer expectation places the Creative Director at the crux of cultural sensitivity and inclusivity in advertising.
“A misstep can not only alienate a particular demographic but can also lead to significant brand damage,” says Alberto Triana, who has 15 years of experience in marketing.
He adds: “The campaigns I’ve participated in have touched audiences globally. Today, a Creative Director’s job isn’t just about conceptualizing campaigns; it’s about ensuring that these campaigns are universally relatable and devoid of inadvertent cultural insensitivities.”
Triana, originally from Colombia, has worked on hundreds of campaigns that have generated billions of dollars.
He studied at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, majoring in Social Communication and Advertising (2004-2009). Furthermore, he has taught seminars and lecture classes in schools of creativity and innovation.
Triana began his illustrious career with Ogilvy & Mather Colombia in 2007. His recognition opened doors for him at DDB, MullenLowe and TBWA, and under his influence, these agencies clinched the most important recognitions in the marketing and advertising industry.
Fast forward to the present day, and he is currently the Creative Director at VMLY&R Commerce in New York. He’s been the creative force behind global brands like Coca-Cola, Mondelez, General Mills, and Wendy’s.
Over the years, Triana has won more than 100 awards, including accolades from the Cannes Lions, D&AD, and Clio Awards.
“As a Creative Director, my role spans from ideation to execution. I’m involved in every stage, from brainstorming ideas to ensuring they come to life as envisioned,” Triana says.
“I always try to push the boundaries, presenting ideas that may make clients slightly uncomfortable. It’s a sign that our suggestion is disruptive, novel, and exciting. However, it is vitally important to do this within the boundaries of cultural responsibility.”
Triana experienced this personally with two groundbreaking campaigns he worked on.
The ‘You Are My Son’ for Colombia’s Defense Ministry was a call to the guerrillas during Christmas, using the emotional voices of their mothers, urging them to come home: “We had to be incredibly sensitive to the nuances and possible interpretations of this campaign,” he says.
“The work we did for Nissan on its Middle Eastern campaign is another example. At a time when Saudi Arabia had just begun to permit women to drive, we launched an initiative to train women to drive. The highlight? Their driving instructors were their family members, showcasing support in an emotionally charged moment.”
Triana knows it is often necessary to tread a tightrope. Recent history is replete with examples where brands faced backlash for culturally insensitive advertising.
One example is H&M’s racially insensitive ad in 2018 featuring a young black boy wearing a hoodie with the text “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.”
A 2017 Nivea advertisement with the slogan “White is purity” was criticized for promoting racism.
These incidents underscore the necessity for a more measured, culturally attuned approach to ad creation.
So, how does a Creative Director ensure that brand narratives are compelling and culturally sensitive?
Triana says having diverse teams with equally diverse perspectives helps: “You need to foster diversity within their creative teams. Having members from varied cultural, racial, and social backgrounds can provide a broader perspective, pinpointing potential areas of cultural insensitivity that a more homogeneous group might overlook.”
He adds that cultural dynamics are also continuously shifting with the world constantly evolving. Regular workshops, seminars, and training sessions on cultural sensitivity can ensure that the team remains updated and culturally attuned.
Triana stresses that fully understanding cultures is another easily avoidable pitfall: “Engaging with diverse cultures, asking questions, and becoming emotionally invested fosters empathy. This empathy is a powerful tool in determining what to communicate and what not to.” he says.
“Creative Directors must ensure that their campaigns steer clear of such clichés, portraying individuals and cultures in a nuanced, authentic manner.”
He adds that at its core, he believes cultural sensitivity stems from empathy: “Creative Directors must cultivate an environment where empathy isn’t just encouraged but is integral to the creative process,” says Triana.
“By stepping into the shoes of various audience segments, the team can better understand their perspectives, leading to more inclusive advertising,” he adds.
“While the immediate goal of culturally sensitive advertising is to avoid negative brand implications, the broader objective is far more profound.”
Advertising is a powerful medium, influencing perceptions and shaping societal narratives. By ensuring inclusivity, brands can foster global unity, understanding, and mutual respect.
Moreover, inclusive advertising resonates more deeply with audiences nowadays. It tells them that the brand sees, understands, and values them. This can lead to deeper brand loyalty and trust.
Triana concludes: “We live in a more integrated world than ever. The onus is on brands to communicate with sensitivity and empathy.
“Inclusivity in advertising isn’t just a moral obligation; it’s also smart business. Brands recognising and respecting their diverse audience’s cultural nuances position themselves for deeper engagement, trust, and loyalty.
“Cultural sensitivity in advertising needs to become the norm rather than the exception, fostering a world where brands unite rather than divide.”
Manuel Borde is the Global CCO of VMLY&R Commerce at TBWA/RAAD Dubai. He worked with Triana at the company and Ogilvy Bogota.
He says many aspects come into play when it comes to cultural sensitivity: “Alberto is excellent to work with, a great creative thinker and an even better relationship builder. He is great with clients and managing teams, and these all play into ensuring inclusivity in the workplace and in campaigns.
“During our time together in Dubai, he helped the agency become the most creative agency and network in the MENA region, including the top spot at Dubai Lynx in 2018.”
Borde adds he saw how Triana’s resilience and calm nature played out on two important campaigns: “On the Coca-Cola ‘Alexa I see Coke’ campaign, Alberto kept pushing and helped us pivot to reach the market. This creative ‘endurance’ skill is lost in many of today’s creatives. You have to keep your cool to find solutions.
“He understood the context for the ‘She Drives’ campaign for Nissan. By being very strategic, Alberto encouraged his team to understand the value in Saudi society for women to get their fathers, brothers and husbands to support them. It was a great response by the team, and showed great sensitivity.”