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Why TikTok holds all the power to transform inclusive casting in advertising

Sian Keogh, from ITB Worldwide, discusses the importance of the disabled community in the quest for more inclusive and diverse representation within marketing and the power of TikTok's algorithm in helping social campaigns become more inclusive

Everyone’s talking about diversity and inclusivity. And rightly so. The events of last year were a catalyst that sparked global conversation on such an important matter – and marketers have been scrambling to make strides in the right direction. But in this quest for inclusive and diverse representation, there’s still one marginalised group that is all too often being left behind on this journey – the disabled community; those with learning, physical or hidden disabilities.

They are the largest minority group – representing 15% of the world’s population – but still, research shows that only a mere 0.06% of advertising features members of the disabled community. This has got to change – and it turns out TikTok might just be the platform that holds all the power to facilitate more inclusive representation.

We know all too well that when casting a campaign, a longstanding top factor considered is the level of influence that someone has, which often comes down to their following and reach on social media. The challenge when trying to diversify a campaign is that most disabled creators on Instagram are at the micro level in their following, so while their content and messaging might be of great importance, their reach often prevents them from even being considered.

The TikTok algorithm turns this all on its head, changing the way talent is discovered and has democratised the exposure a creator can get through the For You Page (FYP). Unlike Instagram, where a follower base has to be carefully cultivated, TikTok has enabled some creators to have meteoric rises. Disabled creators on TikTok have found an audience they would not previously have been exposed to on Instagram and the comparison of following is self-evident. On Instagram, their following might be tens of thousands, while on TikTok they are often in the millions. Lucy Edwards, a British make-up artist and BBC Radio 1 producer who is also blind, has 89.1K followers on Instagram (@lucyedwardsofficial) but has 1.6 million on TikTok (lucyedwardsblind) – which is a phenomenal difference in reach.

We cannot underestimate TikTok’s power in helping social campaigns become more diverse and representative. As brands begin to understand and explore the marketing potential of TikTok, there’s an opportunity to be part of inclusive cultural conversation. But apart from the FYP democratising exposure of content, what is it about TikTok that enables disabled creators to thrive?

1) Video first

The core video element of the app lends itself to a better format for education and learning. If we look at Glen Cooney (@this.tourettes.guy) who has over three million followers on TikTok, his content will only work in a video medium. Glen documents ordinary parts of his life – be it cooking or getting a Covid jab – as a man with Tourettes. His quick, humorous content honestly and openly displays the reality and ordinariness of his disability. Most people are visual learners, and it is easier and more accessible to show what it’s like living with Tourettes than to post a static image with a long descriptive caption (which is typically the heart of Instagram’s content).

2) Gen Z domination

TikTok’s audience is primarily dominated by Gen Z, who are broadly a more tolerant and open-minded cohort, eager to learn. What we’ve seen with the social justice movements of the last few years also translates to the diverse range of creators that Gen Z want to be interacting with. The high following many creators have on TikTok demonstrates that there is a growing audience for content from disabled individuals, especially if it gives people a way to learn about different communities in a fun, accessible way.

3) Young, raw & honest

The TikTok app is still in its infancy so it has yet to become overly precious. On Instagram, many users want to give the impression of ‘living their best life’. This can often feel unattainable and inaccessible, leading to a feed that lacks in personality, relatability and a less engaged audience. While TikTok is still developing, many creators are more raw and honest in their content, whilst also being able to be off-the-cuff and fun. Take Ella Willis, a British student who has autism, her Instagram (@_ellawillis) primarily has stylised static posts showing brief surface-level insights into her life, whereas her TikTok feed (@ellaellaw) shows fun sketches about her autism that are also educational and informative.

4) Inclusive design

Finally, TikTok has been making strides as an app to be more inclusive, such as introducing an auto-caption feature which will automatically generate subtitles for all content. This is something Instagram needs to improve on and previous video-first social media sites like Vine never had.

While there are many positives about TikTok, and far more diverse creators on the app with a large audience, there are also – as with all forms of media – some challenges and issues. In the same way it has provided a much-needed platform to diverse voices from the disabled community, it has also given a platform for people to spread dangerous misinformation; and because the TikTok algorithm can create echo chambers, the prejudice can spiral.

There have also been issues with the platform not understanding content and silencing diverse voices because of lack of nuance and knowledge of their disability. By automatically removing a video without understanding the context can lead to creators with different needs and abilities being silenced, while hateful and prejudiced content remains public.

Creating a safe, inclusive and accessible platform for all

There are billions of pieces of content on the platform which cannot be individually monitored to understand the context and nuance of each. As TikTok evolves, more will have to change in the way the app is structured, and content monitored, so that it can continue to build towards a safe, inclusive and accessible platform for all.

As with all social platforms and media outlets in the 21st century, there are both issues as well as opportunities. With influencer marketing – and on TikTok especially – there is potential to affect a genuine shift in our perception and understanding of one another. Whether intentionally or not, TikTok has enabled creators from the disabled community to flourish and build a far larger audience than they might have otherwise.

We can’t understand what we can’t see, so with greater exposure for disabled individuals comes greater awareness and hopefully tolerance, which is vital. Not only will greater visibility in marketing for those with disabilities drive a positive shift by building a more inclusive society, but leverage the largely untapped spending power of the disabled community – an estimated £249 billion a year. Having representation for disabled voices and creators can only be a good thing for TikTok, brands and our society at large.

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