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If Utah Ever Wants to Be Taken Seriously, We Have to Start With Ourselves

This is not a sore loser post. This is a wake up call.


Close up photo of a bowl of colorful cereal O's.

Struck recently attended the American Advertising Federation (AAF) Utah Addy awards ceremony because we’d been told one of our entries won. Great! Who doesn’t love a little celebration party?


We walked out. It wasn’t because we didn’t win a bunch of awards — our work is good, we don’t need the accolades.


We walked because forty minutes into the winners reel, it was getting uncomfortably apparent that something wasn’t adding up. Every second and third… and often fourth award went to the same agency. The awkward chuckles weren’t just from one or two people anymore — they were rippling across the room at every mention of that name. There were a few other names that cropped up over and over again, but the stacking was so heavy it was smothering. It wasn’t lost on anyone that the winningest agency was also the main sponsor of the evening.


And the ad work that was being awarded was highly reflective of the people in the room: I saw one Black person. Most of the ads featured white people, and when they didn’t, the diversity felt forced. Almost like a creative director had said, “Ok, we need one Black kid, an Asian kid, and a couple Hispanic kids in the mix — that’s about the right ratios, yeah? And don’t forget a kid in a wheelchair!” It wasn’t natural; it was tokenism.


Here’s my beef: the people who live and work in Utah are proud of this state. Not all of it. There’s a lot we wish was different. But to the outside world, Utah sells itself as interesting, modern, inviting. Equal to other states, if not slightly superior. For the growth of our economy, for the happiness of our families, that’s a perspective most of us want to support.


We’ve dubbed our tech industry Silicon Slopes to attract and keep the likes of Adobe, Microsoft, eBay, Facebook. We have started multiple tech-focused conferences and host even more. We’ve got a disproportionate number of start-ups that succeed or go full unicorn.


And then look at the geography — you can go from desert to snowy peaks in hours. Every sport you can imagine can be done outdoors here; we’ve hosted Outdoor Retailer for decades for just that reason. We were home to the 2002 Olympics and are on the shortlist again. People flock from around the world for our snow alone. We rank third for national parks in the United States. The diversity of wildlife in this state is bonkers — did you know we have over 200 native species of bees?


Look a little closer. We host one of the largest tattoo conventions in the country every year. Our PRIDE parade sets records for turnout, surrounding activities, and support. RedBull Rampage and Ken Block have tied their names to Utah terrain because there’s none like it in the world. Our name brings images of Robert Redford and the Sundance Film Festival.


Dive into the neighborhoods — Utah’s citizens include incredibly diverse groups of people from around the world who call this state home, who are trying to make livings here, who are raising families here. People have moved here for outdoor recreation. We’ve welcomed record numbers of refugees from war-torn and devastated countries. We’re in the top five states for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations — and we’re hundreds of miles away from the ocean. We have one of the highest populations of Native American and Indigenous residents (15th in the country). And people come from all over the globe to make their homes in Utah because of the LDS church — they bring their cultures, their food, and their perspectives with them.


By these accounts, Utah should compete in the top echelons for producing the most inspiring, diverse, and creative advertising in the country. But the representation isn’t there.


That night I saw a table of white people celebrating the commercial they made for a diverse sports team. I saw fully abled people accepting awards for TV spots that briefly flashed wheelchair users in the supporting cast. And I saw religiously affiliated organizations haul in award after award for creative that felt familiar, repetitive, and safe.


I’m bitterly disappointed — in myself, for discarding the ‘Drink Water, Love Hard, Fight Racism’ sweater I chose not to wear. In my peers, for believing that the bubble they see around them is representative of the greater world, and for settling for creative work that only really sings in that bubble. And in our industry, for holding awards ceremonies in the first place, for continuing to secure the echo chambers of whiteness and privilege against honesty, equity, and true creativity.


Because isn’t that what advertising could be? It’s our industry — it is what we say it is. We could be change makers. We could be educators. We could be inspiration. We could be pointing to the greater good. We could be leaders.


You’ve seen ads that speak that kind of truth — they hit different. When Cheerios very quietly started showing mixed family structures and ethnicities. When Dove stripped away makeup and airbrushing and socialized acceptable body types. AirBnB, Nike, Google search, Lyft, Coca-Cola, P&G…the ones that leave you with goosebumps because they strike deeper than amazing cinematography.


We don’t have to play these capitalistic, self-congratulatory Hunger Games. That’s just reading our lines, playing into the narrative we’re being told we ought to follow, the prescribed path to ad agency success.


But success for who? When you win all the awards, there’s no room for anyone else to share the spotlight.


 

Jess Vice is the Strategy Director at Struck, where they bring 15 years in UX to bear in client work. Jess has always been an advocate for human beings, especially those that are unable to thrive in the systems they rely on.

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