We all possess both positive and negative biases, many of which operate subconsciously, influencing our actions without our awareness. However, what occurs when these unconscious biases seep into advertising?
This can occur in different ways. One of the most common is through the creative messaging in advertising campaigns. This includes issues like a lack of diversity in images and a failure to consider cultural sensitivity when choosing words or phrases. Unconscious biases can also influence the technology we employ to manage campaigns.
The impact can harm consumers, deteriorate brand health, and diminish the overall impact of your ad. In the grander scheme of things, biases can perpetuate stereotypes and do real damage to groups of people.
So, what is it, where does it come from, and how can you recognize it and build a more inclusive process?
What is implicit bias?
Implicit bias, also known as unconscious bias, refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions without our awareness.
Implicit bias is thought to originate from a combination of several factors:
Cultural and Social Conditioning: Many implicit biases are shaped by the cultural and social environment in which an individual grows up. Stereotypes and prejudices are often perpetuated through media, family, and societal norms. People tend to absorb and internalize these biases from their surroundings.
Cognitive Processes: Our brains naturally categorize and simplify information to make sense of the world. This categorization can lead to the formation of stereotypes and biases, as individuals may unconsciously associate certain traits or behaviors with particular groups.
Personal Experiences: Our individual encounters, both good and bad, can contribute to the development of implicit bias. Interactions with people from different groups may reinforce or challenge pre-existing biases.
Limited Exposure: If someone has a narrow visibility of people from diverse backgrounds, they may be more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations, as their personal experiences are insufficient to provide a more nuanced perspective.
Evolutionary Psychology: Some researchers suggest that implicit bias may have evolved as a survival mechanism. Early humans needed to quickly assess potential threats, and this could have led to the development of rapid, sometimes oversimplified judgments about others.
Cognitive Shortcuts: The human brain often uses cognitive shortcuts to process information more efficiently. This can lead to the development of implicit biases as individuals make snap judgments based on limited information.
Many of our attitudes come from human experience. But when advertisers create messaging and choose audiences to target, making sure the right message and prioritizing inclusivity becomes a major responsibility that needs to be addressed with each campaign.
Why recognizing biased advertising is important to advertisers
How biases affect advertising hinges on presumptions rather than objective truth to execute campaigns. While advertisers aim to steer clear of premature judgments in their decision-making, attaining this objective can prove to be challenging, because people aren’t always aware of the implications.
While there has been a long history of bias in creative messaging (too many to get into here), unconscious biases are still at play everywhere but may be hiding in plain sight. For example, the images you select to go on your website, digital ads, or social media platforms can reinforce assumptions, attitudes, and stereotypes about people. According to a Forbes story on implicit bias in images, a simple Google image search “thinks” that more than 90% of professors are white men and an AI algorithm linked women with kitchen-related imagery after processing and analyzing over 100,000 images gathered from various sources on the internet.
As marketers and advertisers increasingly use technology and data to run their campaigns, it becomes harder for users to detect how unconscious biases are factored into algorithms.
In 2021, IBM Watson Advertising unveiled a research initiative focused on harnessing the power of Artificial Intelligence to assess the extent of undesired biases. They determined that bias does indeed exist “within both determined and proxy characteristics in advertising campaign data.” In other words, the identification of proxy biases indicates that machine learning models can take into account factors beyond the initially specified targeting data. These models can respond to influences beyond the predetermined inputs, such as a specific segment.
How to check for implicit bias in your advertising campaigns
When we talk about implicit bias, we discuss the decisions we make are usually unconscious. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to recognize them. As you start to flesh out your advertising campaigns, there are checks to make every step of the way.
It’s crucial to shift the focus from merely relying on past performance data and instead place a strong emphasis on potential. By doing so, businesses can ensure that their segmentation aligns with the evolving needs and behaviors of their target audience. It is essential to evaluate whether the segmentation accurately mirrors the real demographics of the population. Sometimes, adhering strictly to basic demographics might no longer be a necessary or sufficient approach. Brands should reevaluate their strategies to adapt to the diversity and complexity of the modern consumer landscape.
Consideration is the identification and mitigation of any potential minority bias in programmatic and AI systems. It’s essential to ensure that data used in these systems is corrected for any existing biases to provide a fair and equitable user experience.
Brand strategy and creative content
Authenticity is paramount. Exploiting diversity or minority groups for inauthentic branding purposes can have adverse consequences. Brands need to evaluate whether their messaging and creative materials genuinely reflect their purpose and values while avoiding the use of stereotypes or culturally inappropriate iconography.
An emphasis on diversity and inclusion should be maintained, with data tracking and decision-making processes adjusted to eliminate subjectivity and encourage reporting of diversity-related issues, even if they may not be popular opinions.
How you can start building a culture of inclusion
Harvard, along with collaborators from other universities created a test people can take to assess their own conscious and unconscious preferences that helps inform research as well as the individual taking the 15-minute session.
This is just one of many ways advertisers and businesses can start to incorporate a culture that is more inclusive and questions the status quo.
Is your team conscious of potential biases in your data and marketing procedures? It’s important to recognize that unconscious biases, following trends, and seeking confirmation can impact numerous decisions we make throughout the year. It’s important to help your teams recognize and address any biases in our processes because if we can’t identify them, we can’t rectify them.
Bring diverse points of view to the decision-making process
One of the most effective ways to eliminate biases in messaging and decision-making is to bring more perspectives to the table. Two critical aspects of creating more inclusive advertising are determining who is present at the table and ensuring that their voices are heard.
Make implicit bias training mandatory
Organizations that invest in implicit bias training demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, which can positively affect their reputation among employees, customers, and the public.
While there is no magic bullet for solving implicit biases, addressing that it exists within everyone and having a plan in place to bring more perspectives and questioning assumptions ensures an ongoing commitment to better advertising and a progressive workplace.