Inclusivity for dummies: How to tell if your ad is tokenistic

Tokenism in ads isn’t a new phenomenon. Even though society has taken strides to become inclusive, brands still fall short of being one and often yield to ‘woke-washing’. Here’s a quick rundown on Inclusivity for dummies, this time for advertisers.

Sneha Medda
New Update
Inclusivity for dummies






Tokenism refers to the practice of including a member of a marginalized group solely for the purpose of appearing inclusive while not addressing deeper issues of diversity. 

Recently, I came across an athleisure brand’s ad, which reimagined the pictogram indicating accessibility for disabled people in a sports version. The campaign redid the symbol of accessibility and added various sports in an attempt to show that sports aren’t just restricted to non-disabled people. 



At the end of the ad, I was left with a looming question – ‘If the able-bodied signs didn’t need to mention their abilities to play sports, then why with the wheelchairs?’ 

The simple answer to that is that the ad must’ve been made with an abelist and tokenist gaze. 

In an attempt to be ‘more inclusive,’ the brand forgot to include the subject of the campaign, in this case, disabled individuals. 

The ad world has seen tokenism in campaigns multiple times. Whether by changing logo colors for a month or casting underrepresented groups in the background that actually don’t serve a purpose to the storytelling. 

Here’s a quick guide to take note of to avoid tokenistic tendencies while making a campaign. 

Avoiding Superficial Representation

Multiple studies show that consumers crave to see more appropriate representation. According to a report by Cannes Lions and Google, consumers in APAC want to see more groups represented in marketing, and there’s a strong appetite for more inclusive content. However, as per their research, it seems not enough inclusive content is being created. Only 1 in 5 consumers feel represented in the ads they see.

Last year, Burger King Austria’s Pride campaign featured a Pride Whopper that showed two bun tops and another with two bottoms, an extremely poor take on sex within the LGBTQIA+ community. After upsetting a whole lot of queer individuals on the internet, the brand put up a half-cooked apology – "The intended message of the Pride Whopper was to spread equal love and equal rights. Our strongest concern is if we offended members of the LGBTQ Community with this campaign. If this is the case, we truly apologize.”



This was a sorry attempt to tick a box and tokenstically talk about a subject without really speaking to people from the community or giving them a medium of expression.

So, it’s safe to say that portraying communities as multifaceted individuals with diverse interests, aspirations, and experiences rather than a filler character to tick your inclusivity box is the way to avoid superficial representation. 

Moving Beyond Stereotypes

According to a report by ASCI on gender stereotypes in ads, 74% of female consumers believe that the way they are portrayed in ads is completely out of touch with who they truly are. 

As far as I can remember, growing up, TV screens were plastered with women selling everything ‘domestic’ from kitchen utensils, food products, and detergents to baby products – caging women in a stereotypical box. On the other hand, men sold house loans, cars, liquor, and gadgets. 

Remember how a pressure cooker’s tagline read  – ‘Jo biwi se kare pyaar, woh Prestige se kaise kare inkaar’? A classic case of stereotyping a woman. Prestige’s infamous tagline, which was penned in the 1970s, was still being used till the late 2010s, where a wife is always present in the kitchen, and the husband is ‘carefully’ advised to buy a Prestige cooker if he loves her wife – boiling the communication down to – a wife’s job is cooking. 

Another case of casual sexism was seen in MTR’s ad where a mother ‘casually’ whips up a number of dishes her family demands from her, all in the span of minutes, yet again showcasing how a wife/mother can work wonders in the kitchen. 



That was then, but even after years of course correction and the bloom of cancel culture, in many cases, brands still forget to look beyond stereotypes. 

In 2022, Everest Spices’ portrayed that it is a woman’s job to take care of the cooking duties while their husbands were seen complaining and enjoying their time. Years have passed between the Prestige ad and this one, but the communication still stands very similar. 



Identically, LIC India’s ad showed two couples talking about proper life planning and how it has effects in old age. The 30-second ad looks normal at first glance, but soon I realised all the talking about investing and planning was only done by the men and all the women did was nod along and smile without giving any input to the conversation. The ad used the women as mere props in the ad, where the ad could have easily replaced them with some inanimate object. 



These examples show how token characters often lack depth and development, sometimes existing to primarily fulfil a stereotypical role or as a background accessory rather than having their own story to tell. 

Not Ignoring Intersectionality

Earlier this year, Zomato faced massive backlash for an ad, rightfully so, that depicted the actor who played the Dalit character Kachra in the film ‘Lagaan’ as items made of recycled waste. A prime example of an ad made in bad taste without speaking to the people it is made on/about. It had an upper-caste gaze. For ads to be truly inclusive, it is important for brands to speak to people from minorities. 



In a country where casteism is a deep-rooted problem, making an ad with undertones that further elevate this notion reflects how a brand can easily ignore intersectionality. 

If an ad feels forced or out of context, like the one mentioned above, chances are it isn’t being inclusive. The same ad could have presented the message of being sustainable and the importance of recycling in n number of ways, without having any casteist undertones to it. Authentic representation of any marginalised community would mean showcasing a situation that can reflect their real lives, struggles and experiences. It also means a celebration of their multicultural and multifaceted personalities.

Insensitive Content

When any ad makes use of any form of insensitive image, language or connotations of being downright crass, there’s a high possibility that the makers of the ad didn’t invest time or efforts to understand the experiences and concerns of the underrepresented group.

Objectification of any group of people is one of the many aspects of being insensitive. Indian ads have had a history of over-sexualizing and objectifying women to send a simple message that didn’t have any business being so insensitive. 

A recent campaign that had the internet questioning every aspect of how the ad came to be was an ad film by Layer’r. The ad oversimplified and normalised the heinous reality of sexual assault and casually promoted it. An insensitive ad through and through wanted to sell deodorants at the cost of making fun of a serious issue worldwide.



After being rightfully called out by the netizens, the brand issued an apology, but the damage was already done. 

This isn’t the first time that a brand has ‘jokingly’ objectified women. In the past, Jack & Jones India’s OOH ad used ‘quirk’ to justify workplace harassment and women's rights in the workplace in India.


Representation behind the scenes

How do you think all the backlash that some of the ads mentioned faced, could’ve been avoided? A simple answer to that would be having more marginalised communities in your workforce. Equality starts at home, and in this case, ad agencies and organisations. The perfect person to narrate a story about a neurodiverse individual, or a person with disabilities, or a woman,  or a queer person, would be one of them. 

According to a recent report by Accenture, in India, 79% of LGBTQIA+ employees have indicated that their career growth has slowed down because of their gender identity and expression. 

A study by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People it was mentioned that the average percentage of employment of people with disabilities in the public sector is 0.54%; in the private sector is 0.28%; and in the multinationals is 0.05%. 

Organisations need to hire more people from marginalised communities in order to have proper representation reflected in their ads. If people from different backgrounds aren’t given the platform to tell their stories, their stories will continue to lack authenticity and will always have a privileged or tokenist gaze to them. 

An ad can only be truly inclusive if the purpose of casting individuals from the minorities or narrating their life stories isn’t done to ‘woke-wash’ your campaign. Doing so would mean that their stories were just a mere passage for you and your brand to appear inclusive and thus become tokenistic. 

The next time you ask the question of how to differentiate between genuine efforts and tokenism, you can go through the checklist mentioned below. 

  • Regularly showcase diversity across advertising campaigns.

  • Actively seek input from underrepresented communities.

  • Support diverse talent both in front of and behind the camera.

  • Implement inclusive policies within the company culture and practices.

  • Commit to addressing systemic inequalities beyond advertising.

representation inclusivity for dummies tokenistic stereotypical