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Implicit bias in advertising

By Anwar Boutayba

In the advertising world, businesses want to know the individuals that can and should buy their products. 

However, it’s important to avoid the enforcement of harmful and exclusionary implicit biases through the creation of advertising content.

What is Implicit Bias?

According to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, implicit bias is defined as “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner…(that) cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance.”

Implicit biases are meant to create societal separations between groups of people in order to advance pervasive agendas. In fact, most implicit biases are advanced through media and advertisements – two things that often have high occurrences of consumer exposure.

Starbucks and Implicit Bias

One of the most prolific examples of implicit bias (and its disastrous effects) occurred in 2018 when the police were called on two Black customers at a Philadelphia Starbucks. In an effort to restore Starbucks’ image, they shut down stores and held implicit bias training for all employees. 

In the eyes of a socially-concerned consumer, Starbucks’ actions beg a question: Why wasn’t implicit bias training mandatory from the get-go? 

Additionally, implicit biases in an advertising context are damaging to your brand’s image and profit margins. In Starbucks’ case, they lost millions of dollars in revenue and suffered lasting damage to their inclusive brand image – especially after they attempted to forbid baristas from displaying their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement through pins or t-shirts.

But Starbucks is not the only culprit. 

How to spot Implicit Bias

We are living in an era where diversity and inclusion are applauded, which is why advertisements are starting to represent the diverse world we live in. However, some advertisements reinforce implicit biases. The main way they do this is by featuring their ideal consumer on their advertising or marketing communications. 

Of course, some products and services have income cut-offs – a consequence of living in a capitalistic system. Yet, we live in a free-market society, meaning that a Black person can also be the target audience for something that was only marketed for white people.

For example, in a 2017 campaign by Dove, a Black woman was transformed into a white woman after using Dove soap. Dove wanted their audience to think that using Dove will render them pure. Purity, in this case, was represented by whiteness – an idea that was represented in an overtly racist advertisement. 

Another way that brands exert their implicit biases is by featuring only white spokespersons out of fear that their target audience would be unable to identify with anyone else. That belief reinforces the idea that people of color are fundamentally different than white people, which is simply untrue.

How to target Implicit Bias

Targeting implicit bias on an organizational level requires a great deal of introspection. Do you clutch your bag a bit closer when a Black man is approaching you? Are you quick to assume that an East Asian person is Chinese? These are not the only examples of implicit biases but working through them ensures that your actions cannot be utilized to further exclusionary agendas. 

This introspection is pivotal for creating advertisements that are not based in harmful and discriminatory implicit biases because in an age where diversity and inclusion is stressed, your organization should not be contributing to the opposite. 

The 1893 Brand Studio is committed to creating advertisements and stories that are both profitable and inclusive. Our teams are composed of people from all walks of life which creates content that resonates with more than one type of person – something that is crucial in our interconnected world.