Cultural Literacy Belongs in Every Advertising Classroom

A recent social media blunder underscores the need for better training in marketing education

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Advertising plays a major role in shaping how we interpret and experience the world around us. That makes the people who create it powerful—and the people who teach them even more so. 

Recently, LinkedIn’s advertising community got a jarring wakeup call about how that power needs to be wielded, and the damage that’s done when we fall short. 

When Tom Christmann, co-dean of Adhouse Advertising School, was approached by a teacher, he was initially excited about sharing the below piece of student work on social media:

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“One of the things I’ve been pushing for is to get more student work out there,” Christmann told me. “I saw it as more of an ‘in your face’ to the people that use the phrase White Lives Matter, so I said, ‘OK, let’s post it.’ … I just missed it. I completely missed it.”

While Christmann removed the post from the Adhouse account and ultimately issued an apology, what he wasn’t aware of was that the teacher who initially called the work “brilliant” had been defending his position for a full week on his personal page until industry activist and VMLY&R chief experience design officer Walter Geer got involved, at which point he deleted the post. 

Like many who engaged in the conversation from there, a question continued to play in my mind: How many creatives, entrusted to create responsible, compelling work by the world’s most resourced brands, were taught to do so by someone with such unchecked blind spots, and what can we do about it?

Train those who teach, even volunteers 

If you ask those in the know, the only real qualifications one needs to teach at many of the prominent ad schools is a desire to be in front of a classroom and a connection with someone who has the power to put them there. 

Of course, this is a problem. City College of New York advertising professor Rebecca Rivera confirmed this flaw in the system without mincing words. 

“In this community, most professionals are invited into the classroom. If they like it, they get the bug. They keep teaching, but they’re not necessarily prepared,” she said. 

“If you’re going to walk into a classroom and shape young minds, it’s your responsibility to figure out how to deliver the best practices, and that includes social responsibility. Don’t just invite your pals into the classroom because they think it’ll be a fun lark,” Rivera added.

In my discussion with Christmann, the question of what’s fair to demand from instructors earning only around $350 per student for a 10-week course—just half of the $699 each student pays—came up as a concern, but Rivera had an excellent counterpoint: Even for purely volunteer initiatives like her board position with 100 Roses From Concrete, “that doesn’t mean you take everyone.”

Like with all worthy endeavors, resources are required to do a job responsibly. Ad schools must make it an imperative to ensure any instructor trusted to steward a classroom understands the importance of de-centering their own lived experiences to cultivate creative professionals trained to do the same. 

Diversify the front of the classroom

While ad schools have made strides in ensuring students from historically excluded communities have accessible opportunities to learn the business, Adrienne Lucas, global director of DEI at The One Club for Creativity emphasized the importance of ensuring those in front of the classroom reflect those students’ lived experiences, too. 

“Blackness is celebrated at ONE School,” Lucas said. “The majority of tutors, lecturers and mentors are Black. Students are encouraged to lean into their cultural backgrounds and interests to create authentic work. With each graduating class, ONE School is creating a pipeline of Black talent into the industry. We’re also working to provide DEI and cultural competency training to all of our sponsoring agencies.”

Pam Yang, DEI advocate and co-founder of Agency DEI, is working to create much needed accountability across the marketing and advertising landscape, and ad schools are no exception.

“Be transparent about who your leaders and teachers are by sharing data … to show prospective students and partners how you’re reflecting consumers’ broad array of experiences,” she advised. 

Answering Yang’s call to action couldn’t be less complicated. Ad schools, agencies and in-house marketers committed to transparency are invited to share their stats with her organization here—a move likely to create a powerful competitive advantage for those prioritizing diversity and a powerful incentive to do so for everyone else. 

Make cultural literacy part of every curriculum 

How many of the top ad schools even offer a course on inclusive marketing, marketing responsibly or anything along those lines, much less require one? Even for professors like Rivera and at institutions like ONE School, the mandate to make cultural literacy part of the curriculum is self-imposed. 

“Every course that I teach, whether it’s copywriting, marketing research, media studies or portfolio development, I make sure to weave in cultural literacy. I make sure my students understand that there are ethics involved,” said Rivera. 

As Yang insightfully added, “Ultimately, the foundations of marketing are rooted in empathy and consideration for the people you want to reach. But for cultural literacy, it’s empathy and consideration for the people who may be impacted.” 

Considering community impact alongside consumer engagement takes a nuanced understanding of the difference between the two. If an ad school can’t confidently confirm its instructors are willing and able to impart this lesson, all the good intentions in the world don’t change the fact that they’re actually doing far more harm than good.

Listen to your critics 

A new year may be upon us, but there’s a reason we’re still talking about so many of the same things. From those in charge of the most influential ad schools to those who wield power across the industry at large, there remains a pervasive unwillingness to acknowledge the reality that lived experience is exclusive expertise.

Until each and every one of us reframes our responsibility to prioritize cultural literacy, we will continue to fall short of where we need to be, blaming the scarcity of time and money for our own complicity in preserving the status quo. 

Time and money are only scarce in adland for things we don’t deem of much consequence. But if we truly want to move past the perils of mediocrity, cultural literacy is anything but inconsequential—it’s the key to clearing the exponentially ascending bar that will define the creative excellence every brand’s success will demand.