Unconscious bias is more than hiring and casting – the entire marketing process needs upheaval

Here is how we can have impact in our industry for equality, writes Anne Miles. She argues these practical changes will have an actual impact and make for sustainable changes.

As an industry we are starting to give more attention to our internal hiring practices, the people we recruit, and at best we’re starting to think more consciously about our casting process too. These are a good step forward for sure.

Given that feminist activism is now backfiring, and outdated feminist campaigning is proving to cause more harm than good now, we need to think differently.

We also need to stop making noise and start impacting change – to get on the floor and make practical and sustainable change that aids total equality, and not just focusing on small segments of the population (which can come across as tokenism, despite everyone’s best intentions too).

The more we fight to change our process in a way that creates equality for all we have more chance of finally having impact.

So, as an industry what is there beyond just hiring and HR practices that makes for real impact?

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge one thing – that harmful stereotypes in marketing, media and advertising are now proven to cause domestic violence, bullying and mental health problems.

As a result of this robust research the UK have made it unlawful to depict harmful stereotypes and changed their self-regulation system to administer their new Equality Law (2019).

By contrast in Australia – we have no sanctions in place and we also have no way to link to the governing human rights laws at present leaving the harm to our community unaddressed.

In the marketing process there are 11 key milestones I’ve identified that we can impact positively to remove and prevent unconscious bias and the stereotypes that are known to cause harm.

  1. Product design
  2. Client briefing
  3. Strategy and research
  4. Creative briefing
  5. Creative concepting
  6. Approvals
  7. Production
  8. Analytics and data
  9. Media and distribution
  10. Legal frameworks
  11. Consumer behaviour

My belief is that the most important issue is the self-regulation system. Like with raising children there is no point trying to change behaviour if there are no consequences, we have inconsistent compliance and undefined rules in place. Let’s dive into this one more deeply…. Time for a self-regulation overhaul!

The self-regulation system pretty much centres around the Ad Standards Board (ASB), which is managed by the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) here in Australia, although there are bodies for many of the industry media types and it is a deep and confusing landscape. There is a lot that is working in this system, and some recent improvements to impact sexualisation content is particularly positive when it comes to stereotypes that causes harm, but there is a lot that isn’t working.

  • No oversight by an ombudsman or government entity to keep the AANA transparent and as effective as it could be. Even the Minister for Communications refers back to the self-regulation system to fix their own issues – which is like giving the fox the job of minding the hen-house.
  • The AANA is run by brands with a vested interest in keeping self-regulation, and for minimising sanctions for code breaches.
  • No financial sanction or penalties other than being asked to remove the offending work is in place, and relying on offenders complying. The average number of days for a complaint ruling to be made reveals that brands who repeat offend have *36.5 days on average to leverage the notoriety, and sometimes it can be months. This figure was last revealed by the AANA in 2017 and is now removed from public attention.
  • Research studies (undertaken by Deloitte) on the effectiveness of self-regulation is self-funded. The damning topics from the past seem to be mysteriously excluded from the recent reports – such as the number of people who don’t know how and where to complain (19%), don’t believe complaining will have any impact (17%) or a metric to measure the potential harm or commercial advantage that offenders leverage while in dispute (average 36.5 days), nor the impact of the many repeat offenders make over time. We also don’t have a measure on the population and how desensitisation caused by biased media is impacted specifically. The recent studies on ASB operations seem to be selectively done to justify continuing self-regulation and preventing government intervention, and the results seem to support that story rather than deal with consumer impact or missing codes. Last time some of these issues were reported publicly was in 2015 to fight accusations of their ineffectiveness.
  • The AANA and ASB use public feedback to determine when the population is ready for new codes, but they ask a limited group of educated and informed people and the risk is to further embed bias and prejudice if you ask biased and prejudiced people what they think. If the minority groups or socially disadvantaged were asked what they need we’d get a whole different story, most likely. This is further supported by the bias in the community who do make complaints – tipping to those who live in NSW, female, highly educated, higher income brackets, FreeTV-watching, and 40-54 years old; most typically.
  • Because the AANA code does not include all the conditions that cause harm, then they currently rule this as “Out of jurisdiction” which sounds like the complaint had no merit, when in fact their code is potentially incomplete (certainly so by UK standards and validated by the UK Law Institute). Last published data on this shows that 1181 complaints per year could not be effectively dealt with under the current code, on top of the 577 dismissed issues, with only 10-15% of complaints being upheld. This shows us that the code is likely inadequate, even without the UK precedence to measure against.

The Self-Regulation Landscape: This self-regulation overview in relation to harmful stereotypes reveals no oversight by government or an assigned Ombudsman.

The big question to ask ourselves as an industry – is it acceptable to have a failing self-regulation system? What can you personally do about making change?

If we can’t make universal change then we will end up with brands who are doing the right thing and taking matters in to their own hands and even joining the Unstereotype Alliance, but we may just be creating a situation where the repeat offenders get further commercial gains from breaking the existing codes and push harder on the topics that are not yet managed by self-regulation and we are creating an even bigger divide.
With the public still seeing harmful representations out there without any disciplinary action we are still creating harm in their homes and even desensitising society to think what they see in the media is acceptable and those who fight against it as overly ‘PC’ or too sensitive.

I know in my own experience with domestic violence, workplace abuse and discrimination that all of it can be put in the one bucket – stereotyping made one group of people believe there were more superior to another. In some cases that left me being harmed, abused, assaulted, overlooked, disadvantaged and feeling invisible. Everyone deserves the right to be treated equally and on merit, and we need the systems to administer the right process to be sure we’re making it fair for all and it is sustainable, beyond the noise of a campaign.

Anne Miles, marketing consultant | Suits&Sneakers founder | anti-stereotype advocate

Various sources for claims and references to follow. A full paper submitted to government compiling 3 years of research on this topic is available on request if you require a further dive into this topic. 


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