Voices

Is it time the Lions roared for culture?

Amber Chenevert, PhD, Group Director, Strategy and Insights and Culture Studio Lead at VMLY&R, on why creatives must do more than pay lip service to culture.

Amber Chenevert, PhD (she/her)

Director, Strategy and Insights and Culture Studio Lead at VMLY&R

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In a year when health creative hit the mainstream, its performance at Cannes showcased some seriously impressive creative. But I worry that they don’t  provide us with an answer to an important yet unanswered question. There’s always been a culture of creativity in health, but are we giving culture and creativity equal weighting in our work? We need to, because – as COVID has shown us – when we look at nuances that get in the way of our health, culture is often the least considered. 

So is it time creatives paid greater attention to culture? And is it time awards like Cannes Lions recognized it as a category in its own right? Maybe. But only if we stop disconnecting culture and race – and instead viewed both through a holistic lens. It might be the key to both better advertising and better health.

What is stopping us from being healthy?

Ask yourself the question: what really stops us from doing the things we’re told are good for us;  like taking our medication, cutting out candy or exercising more? There’s a good chance that the advice isn’t so simple. Pharmacy access may be challenging in your community, your favourite candy is tied to childhood memories, and you may need extra coaching to help make exercise fun. 

According to anthropology, our life choices are often driven not by reason, but by our experiences in culture. Many of the decisions we make are rooted in cultural norms, community priorities or peer expectations. Put simply, we all have a cultural DNA – and it has a profound influence on who we are and what we do.

Make no mistake, our cultural identity is important; it helps us feel part of our communities and shapes the values we share with the world. But what if those values inadvertently damage our health? What if our choices come at the expense of our wellbeing, simply because a message didn’t connect or something important got lost in translation? It happens.

We know there are disproportionate numbers of people of colour who are declining COVID vaccines. We also know there are white conservative populations who have been encouraged to not trust science by political influencers.

Amber Chenevert, PhD, Group Director, Strategy and Insights and Culture Studio Lead at VMLY&R

Recognising the impact of culture on health

Cultural DNA can have a big say on our health. For example, some communities mistrust health care professionals because of past mistreatment, others are indifferent. Some people won’t take part in clinical trials for life-saving treatment because the invitation was irrelevant. Each of these decisions – and many more like them – has a cultural signature. But, that disconnect between culture and health engagement is a danger to consumer well-being.  

Vaccine hesitancy is a good example. We know there are disproportionate numbers of people of colour who are declining COVID vaccines. We also know there are white conservative populations who have been encouraged to not trust science by political influencers. In each case, the final outcome is the same but the drivers are different. They’re all hardwired to culture.

In almost every example of stubborn thinking there’s a disconnect between the desired behavior a brand wants to affect and a belief grounded in cultural DNA.

Amber Chenevert, PhD, Group Director, Strategy and Insights and Culture Studio Lead at VMLY&R

It’s a creative opportunity. The hidden barriers to healthy decision-making can be overcome through creative communications – but only if messages connect with their audience and strike at the heart of a meaningful truth. 

If we want creativity to inspire healthy decision-making, we need to do our cultural homework. But we must think big. Culture isn’t simply about race: it’s everything from language, customs, rituals and faith to art, food, music, jobs and ideology. The foundations of culture are broad and dug deep, so if advertising is going to persuade us to be healthier, we must get down to the specifics and work out which aspects of culture are getting in the way.

How? Well, in almost every example of stubborn thinking there’s a disconnect between the desired behavior a brand wants to affect and a belief grounded in cultural DNA.  Finding and addressing it means asking the right questions.

Is the gap we need to close rooted in a custom, faith or political belief? Is it in a ritual that’s non-negotiable? Is there a language gap that leaves messages open to misinterpretation?  It’s only once we’ve identified the disconnects that we can create communications that speak to diverse audiences and address their fears.

Our focus on culture can’t be tactical, it must be strategic. The need to understand cultural nuances starts when companies are deciding where they want to play – and should inform everything from product and treatment development to launch and beyond.

Ultimately, creative transformation requires new metrics – and new awards – that reflect the importance of culture. Great advertising goes beyond adding a token splash of color – it explores the full spectrum of our cultural DNA to connect with the things that matter most. And nothing matters more than our health.

It’s time the Lions roared for culture.