Australia’s advertising, media and marketing industry is starting to take diversity and inclusion very seriously.
That’s largely because brands are grappling with how to represent themselves in an increasingly fragmented and diverse market.
At the same time, more and more companies recognise how important it is to attract and retain a diverse workforce and create inclusive work environments where people feel they can speak up, be creative, and do great work.
Diversity of thinking and diversity of background contributes to creativity, the DNA of media and marketing firms.
When it comes to diversity, we often hear about the media campaigns that go awry. There’s a long history of ads that objectify women or miss the mark on representing Australia’s cultural diversity.
Yet there are some smart campaigns that challenge gender stereotypes and embrace inclusion.
SBS currently features a digital campaign, ‘The real you matters’, which explores how some Australians hide an essential part of who they are out of fear of being excluded or judged. Retailer Woolworths has a television campaign with Dad carrying the domestic load, making lunches and grocery shopping.
These are signs of progress in reflecting, and representing, diversity and inclusion.
But advertisers and media specialists are human and prone to making decisions influenced by unconscious biases, as we all are.
Psychologists and behavioural economists have shown one of the key barriers to diversity progress in organisations is unconscious bias.
Even though we like to think we always apply logic and reason in our decision-making, implicit or unconscious attitudes or stereotypes (based on our life experiences and backgrounds) affect our understanding, actions, and decisions.
The reality is we all have these biases so ingrained we hardly notice them - that’s why they’re called unconscious or implicit.
Ironically, the marketing industry uses unconscious bias to great effect.
For example, anchoring is a cognitive bias when we rely too heavily on an initial piece of information (the anchor). You might know this as the technique behind sales tags showing the higher recommended price next to the sale price.
Marketers deploy affinity bias when showing all the other people in our network who like a certain product/experience. Indeed, the whole of social media is built around confirmation bias – how we search for, or recall, information that confirms our beliefs.
But here’s the rub. While the industry deploys these biases to help influence purchasing decisions, these same types of unconscious biases hold organisations back when trying to reach diverse consumers and progress diversity in our own firms.
Take affinity bias and confirmation bias, for example. Working with people from different backgrounds can be hard because we naturally gravitate to people who are like us, and we like to have our views confirmed. This can lead us to overlook candidates from diverse backgrounds, or discredit alternative views, or miss opportunities to reach diverse customers.
Unconscious gender biases, for example, are particularly entrenched and easily influence decisions if we’re not alert to them. We expect women to show warmth, and men to show assertiveness and competence. Our notions of leadership are associated with assertiveness and competence – in other words, masculine stereotypes. In workplaces, someone who behaves in a way that’s inconsistent with these stereotypes is less likely to be hired, according to experts Professor Binna Kandola and Jo Kandola.
What’s important – for internal organisation cultures and external marketing campaigns – is to get the tone and language right, avoid stereotypes, and represent the diversity of Australia’s community.
If you work in the media and marketing industry, here's two ideas to try now:
1. Apply a diversity and inclusion lens to the way you pitch to consumers. Think about the language used and any stereotypes you might be inadvertently promoting.
2. Apply a diversity and inclusion lens to your organisation’s processes (such as recruitment, succession planning) and challenge unconscious biases that inhibit diversity
Just as marketers and agencies have effectively deployed unconscious bias to influence buyer decisions, now’s the time to recognise and challenge unconscious biases and stereotypes that get in the way of diversity and inclusion progress.
The likely upshot is more creativity and greater customer reach and, in this industry, who wouldn’t want that?
(This is an edited version of the keynote speech by Dr Katie Spearritt to the AdNews Media and Marketing Summit in Melbourne, July 2018. Dr Katie Spearritt is CEO of Diversity Partners. Diversity Partners is collaborating with Future Women, a new digital media platform, to advance gender equality with individuals and organisations.)