Marketers can’t help who they are. Where they were born, how they were raised, which schools they attended (or not), how far they have traveled — these and many more factors comprise their biographies. But sometimes, when biographies that are more similar than different are assembled in one room, something happens that can sink a campaign: unconscious bias.
We often think of bias as involving a conscious decision. This is certainly the case when it comes to dealing with the issue of civil rights in its rawest form. But what about when people who have good intentions, but who are very similar to each other are the ones making all the creative decisions? They may not know it, but they could be enacting a hidden bias that takes real effort to eliminate.
The company that heightened the conversation about unconscious bias is Google. In 2014 the company released its workplace diversity numbers — something unheard of in Silicon Valley. To put it mildly, the numbers were miserable. Google admitted that men far outweighed women in the workplace 70 to 30 percent, and that 61 percent of its entire workforce was white, with Asians at 30 percent coming in a distant second. Google took full responsibility for the startling numbers, saying that it had begun workshops to rid its 50,000 employees of unconscious bias.
Unconscious bias is essentially a new way of characterizing the instant bias that we all have, ingrained in us since childhood according to the dozens of factors we likely don’t even realize exist. We make decisions based on this bias all the time and it’s not something that is easily controlled.
The reason unconscious bias is troublesome in the agency world is that decisions made by research, strategy, and creative all might be tainted by influences that aren’t verbalized or even acknowledged or understood. So when a campaign may seem completely reasonable throughout the process, it may ultimately flop once it circulates among the public. We saw that when Pepsi’s internal agency was slammed for a spot that featured Kendall Jenner, who is white, essentially resolving a protest movement similar to Black Lives Matter. By handing a police officer a soda can, the crowd erupts in cheers, which social media found condescending at best, especially involving an issue as serious as police brutality.
No agency or brand wants to be seen as tone deaf, but that is exactly what happens when it reflects little to no diversity in the workplace. While it may agree that diversity is important, the solutions might be one-dimensional. The Pepsi ad is an example of that scenario: while it was obvious Pepsi intended to latch onto a movement that is important to people of color, it choose a white, wealthy supermodel as its focus.
This can change. Google implemented a training program for its employees intended to root out unconscious bias. The company established that four things in the workplace are triggers: we associate certain jobs with a certain type of person (Task); we are more likely to analyze people according to just their demographics (Numbers); we fill in the gaps when information is lacking (Clarity); and a heightened emotional state can distract the conscious mind (Perceiver). The company then created strategies to identify and correct when these triggers were taking place.
It is not yet clear whether heightened training programs will solve this issue. But what is clear is that if agencies are not diverse in the first place — remember, Google was staffed predominantly by white men — both kinds of bias, conscious and unconscious, are likely to happen. This will make your agency look like a dinosaur to clients who, more and more, are demanding that their needs are served by agency workforces that reflect the real world.
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