Two Utah companies are criticized for a lack of diversity in their ads, and experts say businesses need to be more inclusive

A new marketing campaign from a Provo-based swimsuit company looks to celebrate each day’s “little victories” in 12 video interviews with Utah women “from all walks of life.”

The problem? Nine of the women are blonde and all appear to be white.

“‘All walks of life’ should include different ethnicities, races, and backgrounds,” a commenter wrote on the blog post on the website of business Kortni Jeane. “This feels shortsighted to me.”

Several women of color on Twitter and Instagram agreed and asked the company why there were no women of color included in the campaign.

The response? It’s more difficult than you’d think to find models who are also people of color in Utah, the company said.

“We did a model call just two weeks ago with over 200 applicants and none of which were of color,” the company said in a now-deleted response to criticisms on Instagram. “Honestly harder than it may seem but if you know anyone in Utah willing to put a swimsuit on please send them our way.”

That’s when Stacy Horton, 28, took to Twitter to prove a point, calling on women and men of color in Utah to drop a picture of themselves in her thread.

More than 100 did.

“@KortniJeane here is a thread of 100+ beautiful multicultural men, women, and children that live in the Utah area,” she wrote to the company on Twitter. “Reach out, include us, enhance your company with values that are accepting of everyone no matter the color or size. It's 2019, "harder than it seems" is no excuse.”

Kortni Niccoli, the company’s owner and founder, said she was surprised by the backlash to the campaign on social media.

“The campaign was focused on people’s stories and their background and they all came from incredible, different walks of life, and so I was focused not on the color of anyone’s skin or their outward appearance but it was more their stories and I wanted to share a message of celebrating women,” she said. “So it was a shock ... having a backlash on diversity and body image when the campaign was meant to do the opposite.”

Niccoli said the company strives to include diversity but acknowledged it could do more to reach out to women of color. In the future, she said, she’ll be more “gung-ho” about doing so.

“I love to be pushed and I love to hear people’s concerns and comments and feedback because my company wouldn’t be able to grow and reach all walks of life if I didn’t have that feedback and didn’t have people pushing me to be better,” she said.

Utah companies are behind the curve when it comes to representing diverse groups, according to Arul Mishra and Himanshu Mishra, marketing professors at the University of Utah. But it makes business sense for companies to start thinking more critically about who they portray in advertisements, they said.

“Businesses reap benefits when different groups of consumers can relate to the advertising message,” they said in an email. “If people cannot connect to those represented in advertisements and marketing efforts, they would not be interested in the message. No business would want to lose out on a sizable chunk of their audience by not representing them in their marketing efforts.”

But even as booming population growth alters the state’s demographics, there’s a persistent myth of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white Utah — one that doesn’t hold up to the lived experiences of many of the state’s residents.

And marketing like Kortni Jeane’s perpetuates that fallacy, said Alessandra Cuneo, 28, making “a group that’s already minimized” feel even more invisible.

“I think it’s really damaging,” she said. “It still creates kind of an us versus them mentality, right?”

Cuneo, who is Latina, weighed in on the issue on Twitter and told The Salt Lake Tribune she’d like to see Utah boutiques represent more people of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds — hiring not only more people of color but also more plus-size models and members of the LGBTQ community.

Horton agreed, noting that while she’s almost come to expect poor representation from businesses in Utah, she was mostly upset by Kortni Jeane’s initial response to questions and criticisms from women about its lack of representation: it deleted their questions.

“I think having that diversity and having those different colors and different shapes in whatever business you’re running is going to attract different people and that brings in more business,” Horton said. “And so it just baffles me when people are so almost defensive when someone asks about it.”

The same week that Kortni Jeane launched its new ad campaign, the Utah-based boutique Piper & Scoot came under fire for posting a marketing video online that featured a cast of white-presenting models dancing to rapper Cardi B’s “I Like it.”

The video appears to have since been deleted from Instagram and the only evidence of it remains from a Twitter user who said she made a screen recording of the video from Piper & Scoot’s YouTube channel. Her original recording, which she shared with The Salt Lake Tribune, shows the video was titled “Piper & Scoot: Bridesmaid Collection 2019” but does not have the company’s branding.

Several commenters on the video posted on Twitter again asked where the women of color were, pointing out that they thought it was a poor choice to use a woman of color’s song in an advertisement that appeared to highlight no people of color.

“I just feel like these boutiques don’t really think about it,” Horton said. “They’re not out to attack. But there is importance in it.”

Piper & Scoot did not respond to requests for comment.

While Cuneo and Horton said it’s important for businesses to represent diverse groups, they also noted that there’s a difference between inclusion and tokenization, or a merely symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups.

Businesses can walk that line by hiring more than a single diverse model in their marketing campaigns, Cuneo said, to ensure their attempts feel authentic and not just like a box they were looking to check off.

Some organizations have also overcome obstacles to representing diverse groups in part by hiring diverse staff, according to Arul Mishra and Himanshu Mishra.

“Understanding how humans uniquely view themselves is not an easy task,” they said in an email. “Understanding it and then customizing the marketing efforts to customers takes commitment.”