In trying to be diverse, marketers are damaging brands and creating further bias

Activism isn't working, according to Anne Miles. It's causing further division and perpetuating (or creating) bias. And marketers are partly to blame.

I’m an advocate (maybe even an activist) for diversity and inclusion. I’ve been discriminated against or bullied in pretty much every job I’ve ever had. And I care greatly about these topics. But, at the same time, I do believe we are in a phase of ‘diversity oversteer’, and, as much as many of us mean well, we are creating a backlash that could undo all the good we have achieved.

There is a time and a place for activism and speaking up about topics that are being ignored, but there is a time where we should move onto just living and breathing what we fight for, rather than making lots of noise or falling into tokenism.

“Putting a female in a masculine concept doesn’t make it gender diverse, it forces women into the wrong box”

The New York Times reported on a 40-year study by sociologists Joanna Pepin and David Cotter that demonstrated the number of millennials who believe that “the husband should make all the important decisions for the family” has grown from 30% in 1994 to nearly 40% in 2014. The rate of decline is improving since then, but we’re still in trouble. We’re doing something wrong if this is where we’ve ended up.

Could it be that our activism and political correctness is causing this backlash? Are brands over-representing these issues and stepping into ‘woke/ purpose washing’ or tokenism? And how can we tell?

As reported by Ipsos MORI, Australians believe that our population is 12% Muslim. The actual population is 2.4%. With many marketing campaigns putting token Muslims in their advertising, we are likely over-representing a segment of the population, which would lead Australians to believe more Muslim people are here than there really are.

We also know from Western Sydney University that nearly one in three Australians have negative feelings towards Muslim Australians, with 63% saying they would be concerned if a relative married a Muslim. This is very scary. Tokenism impacts perception, and could be a cause of this backlash and racism.

Similarly, we often think Australia is filled with Asians because we see many walking around our major cities. The Australian tourism dollar is strong in Asian markets (and welcomed), but may be impacting our population perception. The majority of our immigrants are from the UK and New Zealand, with 2% of immigrants coming from China. Yet we continue to over-represent Asians in our marketing in attempts to be politically correct, which could further foster a false perception that we’re overpopulating through immigration.

What about the fact that women are responsible for most purchasing decisions? Some consider this the ‘female economy’ and talk positively about it, but what if it’s actually backlash from past gender bias and a signal of diversity oversteer?

Women were traditionally relegated to matters of the home and therefore purchasing decisions aligned with these stereotypes. But with the population at nearly 50/50, women are actually over-represented. It would be easy for a marketer to think that this is where the audience is, so market to them exclusively, when this actually perpetuates bias further and begins to be discriminatory against men. Ads still show women as the ‘together’ one and Dad the bumbling fool, or the irresponsible man who can’t be tidy or do daily chores.

Think about the gaming industry. People assumed only men played games and therefore only produced the kind of games men and boys would like, fuelling this bias. It took Nintendo’s search to find the real potential customer that brought the Nintendo Wii to market, attractive to all ages and genders and bringing with it unprecedented success.

We need to be working on ways to equal the balance. The consequence for getting so much of this wrong is that we aren’t representing the actual customer and we’re causing brand damage along the way and creating new bias.

Agencies and marketers are spending a lot of energy on hiring policies and internal HR processes, while hardly any are thinking about the creative process. 85% of APAC marketers believe their organisations are creating advertising that avoids gender stereotypes, but 63% of consumers disagree.

We’re getting this horribly wrong.

There are solutions: learning more about our unconscious bias, aligning our strategies with the actual population count. Casting for the role, not for tokenism – putting a female in a masculine concept doesn’t make it gender diverse, it forces women into the wrong box and makes us feel misunderstood.

Real acceptance and inclusion is actually invisible. It just is. It’s so natural that there is no need to make a song and dance about it.

I’m certainly not advocating for doing nothing, or rolling over on important topics. But I do believe people are acting out against our activist phase. Be diverse and inclusive, don’t fuss about it or fake it. Social proof will create a momentum and give those sitting on the fence permission to stand up and do the right thing too.

It’s time to move on from activism and focus on actually doing something.

Anne Miles is managing director of Suits&Sneakers


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