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10 August, 2022

5 Ideas for Model Casting for Diversity in Every Respect

Zappos art director Jessica Lopez expands our view of inclusive representation on camera

5 Ideas for Model Casting for Diversity in Every Respect

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A lot of times, when we talk about diversity in e-commerce, the focus is on representation in terms of skin tones and body size but what's happening in the industry to be inclusive of people whose diversity comes in other forms?

To answer this, Zappos art director Jessica Lopez joins The E-Commerce Content Creation Podcast to talk with host Daniel Jester about ways that the industry is broadening its definition of "inclusive" and is harnessing technology to improve representation across that even more welcoming spectrum.

For Jessica's whole talk with Daniel, stream the episode on Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or our website. If it's just the quick takeaways you want, though, read on.

Improved Diversity but with Room for Growth

While not yet where Jessica (or many of us) would like to see it, the content creation industry is showing improvement when it comes to on-camera representation.

"We've come a long way, I'd say, in the last decade, but I think there's still a ways to go," Jessica says. "You're definitely seeing a lot more diversity, even at a modeling agency level. Their books are way more diverse than they were even two years ago. And even six, seven years ago, if you wanted to cast a model of color, it was like they had one in their entire agency. That ratio has completely shifted. So I think that's really opened up the doors to see a lot more representation online, especially in e-com."

That's not to say the industry is doing all it can. "We talk a lot about representation across race, across body size, across ability," Jessica says. "And we have a ways to go across all of those factors, especially when it comes to ability. We need to ramp that up. One thing I feel isn't really part of these conversations as much is representation across the spectrum of gender. I'd love to see more non-binary talent, more trans talent, more gender non-conforming talent."

"There are all kinds of adaptive model needs—limb differences, everything from that kind of thing to Treacher Collins syndrome and things that are common, things you see all the time in people," Daniel says.

Respectful Representation Based on Communication

No one wants to cast for diversity in a way that's lazy or signals mere tokenism. That's why Jessica and the Zappos team coordinates an entire team dedicated to adaptive modeling, making sure they're representing communities in dignifying ways.

"I think that's something that's really important," Jessica says. "You can't just kind of go, 'Oh, we're going to cast somebody with a wheelchair and we're going to just slap them in this campaign.' It needs to be really thoughtful, really intentional."

How do you make sure your brand's representation is rightly thoughtful? It's as simple as communication, Jessica says.

"If you're not part of the community of people with disabilities and you're not getting input from them, you're not doing it correctly in my opinion," she says. "So this team is totally dedicated to that."

Adaptive Modeling Agencies are on the Rise

One of the ways the industry has made strides in diversity is through adaptive casting agencies dedicated to finding on-camera talent from under-represented populations. Jessica points out that, even five years ago, these agencies were relatively unheard of and that brands would have needed to reach out to pools of influencers in those communities in order to identify and book talent.

But for all talent agencies, whether adaptive or more mainstream, there's still not enough representation to keep up with what brands want, Jessica says.

"It's clear that the need from brands and the demand from brands has increased over the past handful of years," she says. "And I don't think the agencies have caught up to the demand. And I think the demand is going to keep increasing. So if someone has a passion for this and wants to start an inclusive agency, I think now is the time to do it."

Imagine AI Helping Under-Represented People See Themselves

For people of every race, size, and ability, virtual try-on technology is increasing their ability to see how a garment looks—not merely on someone like them, but on them! Jessica and Daniel look forward to a time when a product display page could show what every item looks like on the shopper who uploads a body rendering.

"I can imagine a world where I log on to Nordstrom.com and, because I scanned my body and uploaded it to their site or through whatever service exists at the time, all of the clothes on the PDP are on me—on a 3D rendering of my body," Jessica says. "A lot of technologies need to fall into place, like the 3D rendering of the clothing, the 3D rendering of the human body, the plugging of it into the site. But I think when all of those things meld together, you're going to have this really hyper-customized experience of going shopping somewhere."

The implications this would have on brands would be mostly, though not totally, positive.

"If I had to guess, I would think your return rate would be almost nil in that situation," Jessica says. "But also I feel like sales would decrease, because people buy a lot of things to try them all on and maybe they forget to return them." She speculates that if 25% of sales lead to would-be returns, there's the 10% of people who forget to return something before a return expiration date. So you might no longer have those numbers puffing up sales figures, but you save on returns and satisfy a higher percentage of customers.

"I think that has a really exciting implication for sustainability," she says. "Because then it would have an impact industry wide, where things are more right-sized. I feel like we overproduce clothing right now. So the trickle effects of this technology ... in the long run, I think it would be a net positive."

Pictures are Great, but Products Need to Represent and Include Too

The push to be inclusive sounds noble, but if the effort is merely to satiate a public looking for political correctness, the effort will fall flat, Jessica says, because empathetic thinking is present in marketing campaigns but not in the product design of the very things being marketed.

"Having that representation is super important, but if you don't have the product to offer that community of people, it is kind of tokenism," she says. "What's the purpose behind putting this person in front of the camera and having them represented in a campaign? It's really to say, 'You're welcome here. And we support you. We support your community with this grouping of products that will make your lives easier or that serve you.' And if you don't have that, you really have to say to yourself, 'Why am I putting this person in the campaign if I am not actually backing up this outward appearance with actual inventory that serves this community?'"

You're ready to bring a thoughtful strategy to inclusivity in your product images. But for Daniel and Jessica's entire talk—from shoes designed for the metaverse to sassy AI dominating in-store mirrors—you have to hear the entire episode of The E-Commerce Content Creation Podcast. Find it on Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or our site.

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