Lately, our society has engaged in much more discussion about the need to recognize bias in ourselves and our culture, in how we interact with and represent others. As a primary means of mass communication, advertising has a special role to play in this concern. I want to note, though, that examination of these representations should not be an end-result conversation for the industry at large; rather, attention to bias should be given the same attention at a personal level, and applied to research and data collection. We have and need to face implicit bias in ourselves and others. Let’s consider why and how to do so within our field and work.
A recent study by Andrew Tenzer and Ian Murray of Trinity Mirror Solutions has prompted renewed consideration of bias in advertising. In “Why We Shouldn’t Trust Our Gut Instinct,” Tenzer describes his team’s comparison of predominant values and attitudes held by individuals working in advertising with those of middle-income UK residents. The study uncovered “fundamental psychological and behavioural differences” between the populations. These differences are so great, Tenzer warned, unconscious bias could result on the part of an entire profession against the mainstream. They would be selling to—but not relating with—their audience.
The study consisted of more than 2,400 survey respondents from that “average citizen” population and 150 interviews with media agency employees. Primary trends from those efforts indicated age as a major contributor of unconscious bias (18-40 year-olds are 35% of the UK population, but more than 80% of the advertising industry work force), as well as similar difference in education level. These lead to definite consequences on many ideological, value, activity and interest planes, Tenzer argues, and are so ingrained as to feel natural. “Cognitive biases,” he writes, “lead us to see the world in different ways.”
This has sparked much discussion within the ad industry about who makes up our work force and how that population differs from the “average” consumer. It is important to note though that this is not just about group think and collective (unconscious) bias. It’s also an issue of implicit bias on the individual level.
Everyone has implicit bias. Everyone is situated within their surroundings by how they were raised, what they look like, where they live, and innumerable other existential elements. Recognizing that is the first step: analyze one’s own self within the world. For instance: I am female. I am white. I am heterosexual. I am a parent. I have a doctorate. These and any number of other objective elements inherently color my experiences and perspective. They aren’t the same as many others’ and are surely disparate from those of many people the research projects I design will ultimately reach.
Look to intersectional feminist theory for an example of such recognition in play: a white woman will have different experiences in the world than a man due to her gender. However, she benefits from some cultural advantages that are not afforded a woman of color. Similarly, an abled person may not be cognizant of the added cultural biases those with disabilities face. Ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other identity elements provide overlapping and divergent ways to experience the world and discrimination. Recognition of such multifaceted experiences widens and illuminates one’s own personal place in and view of surrounding culture.
As phrased by Verna Myers, one’s brain provides a “limited story” through which to interpret surroundings. This is a barrier, but one that can be overcome. The next step in addressing bias is: know what your limited story is, and then push further to recognize other lived realities.
For those in strategy and planning, consider your limited story’s impact on research. Interviewer bias and other effects of unconscious bias have long been addressed in qualitative research, with many methodologies prompting researchers to recognize and acknowledge their own situation within a study. As described by Margaret Wetherell in Discourse Theory and Practice, “[T]he process of analysis is always interpretive, always contingent, always a version or a reading from some theoretical, epistemological, or ethical standpoint.” Being conscious about the status of the researcher as situated assists not only those designing and carrying out the study, but also those interpreting the study’s results and translating them into strategic messaging.
So how can we continue to put bias recognition into play? Talking to consumers or target audience members is not enough. Make sure to remember that your inherent bias could also influence that discussion—what questions are and aren’t being asked? What references and language are used, and are they the most appropriate choices for the audience? Overcoming bias is not just about recognition, but also reconciliation. This is an essential next step to include in both quantitative and qualitative studies, as bias on the front end of design biases data collected and then analyzed. Data is human.
In summarizing the importance of his study, Tenzer explains: “Our argument is that these biases and traits are manifest in the day-to-day practice of advertising and its outputs. Crucially, this all takes place at an unconscious level. The industry is not out to underserve the modern mainstream, in fact, we are blissfully unaware that we are projecting our mental model of the world on to others.”
Unrecognized and unreconciled biases in advertising and communication at large can affect such large scale cultural issues as the technology divide, generational understanding gaps, socioeconomic disenfranchisement, and any number of other intercultural disparities and discriminations. This ought to remind us of the ethical concerns underlying advertising and marketing, as we are speaking not only to, but often for others. Look for ethical concerns in research design and analysis. When anyone speaks—regardless of whether they are part of the populations being studied—they are “participating in the creation and reproduction of discourses through which…selves are constituted” (Alcoff, 485-6).
Strategic planning isn’t value free. It requires paying attention to yourself and your potential impact upon research, recommendations, and messaging. To sum up, the three seemingly simple steps to start addressing bias in advertising are recognizing your own parameters, pushing past them to consider those of others, and then incorporating the considerations into your research and planning. There is ever more to be done and this is a continually evolving process, but the opening efforts to expand your “limited story” pay off not just in better communications—they widen the world itself.