Diversity Recharged: Finding Inspiration in Authenticity Now

Trends / Realness
Willie B. Thomas
Rebecca Rom-Frank
May 18, 2024
Over the past few years, our work has focused on deconstructing the oft‑used term, “diversity,” in order to understand what it really means, and what that looks like visually. Now, building on what brands have learned, it’s time to do the same for “authenticity”—everyone is talking about it, but what does it really mean?

The data shows that despite huge strides in choosing more inclusive visuals, this is where brands are still missing the mark: 80% think they’re delivering authentic visual content, but just 37% of consumers agree.1 As of 2022, all Fortune 100 companies have made a public commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,2 and our VisualGPS research found that within the visuals brands used in 2023, people of color appeared in 75%, people with larger bodies appeared in the top 100 downloads for the first time, and there were increases of 58% and 153% of people with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ community, respectively. Still, in 2024, American culture demands that representation of historically marginalized groups alone is not enough—our consumer survey found that 88% of Americans think it’s important for visuals to be authentic, too.
The need for nuance
The aesthetics of authenticity tend to reflect shifts in mass media and technology, even if the way that concepts are visualized has stayed the same. For example, our visual analysis found that from 2013 to 2023, the concept of “diversity” was consistently represented by a group portrait of racially diverse individuals—a genre first popularized by the Benneton ads of the 1990s. In 2013, when ads were more likely to appear in print, the top “diversity” image had a sleek, flash‑fill aesthetic that was popular at the time; while in 2023, it exemplified the high‑contrast, earth‑toned color palette that tends to pop on mobile devices today. However, in order to truly shift the visual conversation, it’s important to account for cultural shifts too.

Although visuals of multiracial groups have become more intersectional over time, it’s necessary to understand their limitations in order to portray diversity as a value, rather than as an abstract concept. In 2023, our visual analysis found that 1 in 4 popular visuals showed a multiracial group but just 9% of these showed age diversity, with both seniors and Gen Z in the same frame. And although Black people now appear in 32% of popular visuals, half of that representation occurs in multiracial groups, meaning that Black spaces are rarely pictured. Additionally, overall the cultural nuances of Latine, Middle Eastern, and Indigenous people still tend to be glossed over, especially the intersection of Latine and Indigenous cultures. This indicates that a one‑size‑fits‑all solution to “diversity” no longer feels authentic, and that considering cultural nuances can help represent people with more breadth and depth.
Authenticity is specificity
In 2024, media literacy has caught up with us, and authenticity in visual culture is no longer defined by what’s “real” per se, but by the degree to which it accurately expresses specific feelings and experiences. Social media was once that arbiter of the real, but in the age of influencers, conspiracy theories, and AI, our VisualGPS consumer survey reveals that 79% of Americans of all ages understand that what they see online can’t always be trusted. We also found that while older generations still see authenticity as “something that is not fake or counterfeit”, internet‑savvy younger generations are more used to the idea that reality is a construct, and define authenticity as “something that is genuine, expressing one’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences”. Now that algorithms have fragmented any expectation that visuals represent a single monocultural moment, brands can feel free to visualize more specific experiences—which will resonate with consumers simply by the nature of their specificity.  
The power of personality often remains untapped
Consumers are hungry for novelty, and diversity—of people, personalities, and interests—can be the key to fresh, engaging, authentic visual storytelling. Social media is now less of a networking tool and more of an outlet for self‑expression, especially for historically underrepresented groups—Black, Latine, and LGBTQ+ people are all more likely to say that they see more people like themselves on social media than in traditional media, according to our consumer survey. However, our visual analysis shows that the power of personality remains untapped in the visuals brands are choosing. For example, just 3% of visuals showing a person with a disability are not in an institutional setting; LGBTQ+ culture is rarely shown intersecting with other aspects of culture, and specific subcultures are not pictured in popular visuals at all. For visuals to meet consumer expectations of both diversity and authenticity, it’s crucial that engaging and unique personalities be allowed to shine through.
Video credit: 1465600463,  Lighthouse Films

[1] Gitnux
[2] HR Dive
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