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Confronting Unconscious Bias In Advertising

Everyone in the advertising industry loves to talk about thinking outside the box. But when it comes down to it, a great many of us are still creating work that is informed or shaped to some extent by our own biases. At the most recent Campaign Underground summit, a line-up of advertisers and scientists explored the unconscious bias of brands.

How does bias occur in the first place?

Nobody is born with bias. So where does it come from? According to neuroscientist Moran Cerf, the choices we make are technically crowd-sourced. “In your head, there is more than one you,” he says. “There are multiple voices that all want different things, and you will always end up speaking for the majority.”

We are trained to trust these innate voices more than any information that comes from an external source. “You have a 100 percent belief that what’s happening in your brain is real, is the truth,” says Cerf. “We’re good at putting up a boundary against everything that comes at us from the outside, but if it’s in your brain, you never question it.”

But while you may prioritise what you perceive to be true, this doesn’t stop all kinds of images and information from seeping into your consciousness through media. We are constantly, unknowingly receiving information, says Naomi Sesay, Head of Innovation & Diversity at The Media Trust. She cites Emile Durkheim’s notion of a collective consciousness, the influence of like upon like which creates a cumulative memory based on what has happened to the species in the past. “Information rides on energy and fans out in to the environment to be absorbed, digested and used by others,” she says. This might be how insidious attitudes and groupthink creep in, but Sesay believes it might also be where ideas and eureka moments come from.

How does unconscious bias manifest itself?

“Bias creeps in through a multitude of ways,” says digital sociologist Lisa Talia Moretti. “Through stereotypes, recognition or lack thereof, denigration, underrepresentation, and ex-nomination.” When there is bias in data, and then that data is used as a foundation for an app or campaign, the bias becomes amplified. “We need to remember, there is no such thing as ‘raw’ data,” says Moretti. “It’s a product of human behaviour, and we all know humans are never a sure thing. Ask yourself; who is included and excluded in this system? Who is visible, and who is invisible?”

According to a survey conducted among delegates at Campaign Underground, 12 percent of people have a gender career bias, associating certain types of activity or labour with a specific gender. Women control 73 percent of consumer spending in the United States, and $20 trillion globally — and yet ads frequently fail to speak to them in a way that shows an understanding of their lives.

It might seem counterintuitive that an industry which prides itself on being forward-thinking would produce work which features regressive stereotypes or the erasure of whole demographics — but of course, this is not done intentionally. When an entire team is made up of people who look, think and act alike, that collective consciousness results in creative work that caters to exactly the same people.

Up until last year, that sometimes manifested in ads with characters in outdated gender roles (which have since been banned by the ASA), and issues of heteronormativity and diverse representation persist.

What can the ad industry do about bias?

“Content is co-owned by the people we serve,” says Myralda Derks, Head of the Consumer Marketing Insights team for Home Care at Unilever. “Progressive ads are a business imperative.” This is backed up by research conducted by Kantar Millward Brown: progressive ads trigger more positive engagement, and are 47 percent more likely to be effective in both the long and short term. And this isn’t just about portrayals of women; more modern depictions of masculinity are also 30 percent likelier to perform well.

According to Sesay, overcoming bias is all about the art of attention. “You have to be seen to be heard,” she says. “Pay attention to who you are as a person first, and then who you are as an organisation. Pay attention to the culture and society that you live in. And pay attention to Gen Z! These people are getting ad blockers and creating their own brands/influence. Unless we change, they’re going to reject advertising altogether as it won’t be conducive to how they want to live their lives.” She points out that well-managed, diverse teams tend to work up to six times more effectively than homogenous teams.

“There is one corrective to unconscious bias,” says author and consultant Paul Feldwick, “and that’s research!” He urges advertisers to recognise the overlap between unconscious bias and stereotypes, while understanding that they are not necessarily the same thing. And when it comes to gauging whether or not an ad is biased, he offers up a quote from philosopher George Herbert Mead: “The meaning of any gesture is given in the response.”

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