Can marketing campaigns impact our hidden biases?

May 18

Embarrassing story: I was chatting with an acquaintance at a holiday party a few years ago. I had heard him talk before about having a family and raising his son, so I asked if his wife was at the party too. His response: (a large chuckle, and…) My husband couldn’t make it tonight.  While I was mortified, he was good natured about the whole thing.  I had totally made an assumption about him based on my unconscious biases.  This is something we all do.  All the time.  Without realizing it (hence, the unconscious part).  (If you think you are immune, take a few of the Implicit Bias quizzes at or this quiz at Love Has No Labels.)

Unconscious bias, also called hidden bias or implicit bias, is a prejudice we have or an assumption that we make about another person based on common cultural stereotypes, rather than on a thoughtful judgment (  And we apply this unconscious bias across many categories and contexts, such as gender and race, in the workplace and socially. NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof says it well, “Of course, there are die-hard racists and misogynists out there, but the bigger problem seems to be well-meaning people who believe in equal rights yet make decisions that inadvertently transmit both racism and sexism.”

The impact of unconscious bias in hiring and management decisions in the workplace has become a popular topic in the last few years. For example, an analysis by showed that performance reviews differed significantly for men and women, with women receiving more negative personality criticism than men. As many as 20% of large U.S. companies, including companies like Google (and full disclosure, Ogilvy Public Relations), are providing unconscious bias training to their employees, and this percentage could reach 50% in the next five years (The Wall Street Journal, 2014).

One way to overcome unconscious bias is to increase personal awareness of it so we can consciously commit to correcting for it and changing it.  Communications campaigns have the potential to make a huge impact here – opening our eyes to the thoughts we don’t even realize we have.  One example that has really stuck with me since seeing it many months ago is the Always #LikeAGirl campaign.  When this video debuted online (and then aired during the Superbowl), it got people talking about the way we use “like a girl” as an insult without even realizing it.  I personally love this concept, and applaud Always for doing it.  As a mom of a 5-year-old boy, I am already starting to hear what boys do and what girls do, and can see how much this type of bias matters in shaping my son’s view of the world.

Similarly, Similac took on the Mommy Wars with this video a few months back.  Satirically pitting working moms against yoga moms against stay-at-home dads (etc.), this campaign asks parents to stop making assumptions and judging each other based on our life choices and realize that we are all “on the same side”.   Though I kind of wish the dads hadn’t been the first to get to the runaway stroller at the end, the sentiment here about the biases we bring to the table rings true.

From the federally-sponsored What Can You Do? campaign highlighting the talent of people with disabilities in the workforce (check out its Who I Am video) to Tiffany’s inclusion of a gay couple in its Will You? commercial (full disclosure again: this ad was developed by Ogilvy and Mather), communications that flag and challenge our unconscious biases are becoming more common.  Yet the potential to do more in this space seems limitless.

Where else have you seen memorable campaigns that attempt to target unconscious bias?  And where are there opportunities for companies or others to use communications to bring other biases (e.g., age-ism, obesity, veterans in the workforce) to the forefront?

This entry was posted on Monday, May 18th, 2015 at 2:00 pm and is filed under Behavior Change, Media, Social Marketing, Social Media. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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