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Unconscious Bias Affecting Consumer Behavior

Defining Unconscious Bias

Marketing isn’t just about boosting brand recognition or sales anymore. It’s about how people connect and engage with brands and the narratives these brands share.  It’s got a lot more depth to it these days, thanks to the core values and beliefs of us marketers coming into play. 

Sometimes, we as individuals can subject our audiences to the biases and blind spots that are part of our human experience. When our unconscious biases go unchecked, they sneak their way into society and reinforce stereotypes. In the world of digital marketing, it’s our shared duty to shape perceptions and make a positive impact.

We must be aware of what we transmit in our campaigns. To get it wrong means to unwittingly become champions of spreading these stereotypes. None of us want to be a part of that narrative, and it’s our responsibility to keep this from happening. With this in mind, let’s dive into these blind spots and their effects, and challenge them.

Types Of Bias

Instead of objective truth, advertising bias is based on assumptions. Although marketers try to refrain from prior judgments in their decision-making, it still gets challenging. When we automatically associate specific groups of people with stereotypes, this is known as unconscious or implicit bias. These biases frequently go unnoticed, yet they can have a big impact on behavior and decision-making. The fact that we aren’t consciously aware of these biases makes them particularly difficult to overcome.

Let’s see how our biases can manifest at work and what forms they take. To begin with, we’ll take a look at the main categories of unconscious bias present in digital marketing.  

Gender Bias

Gender bias can be consciously or unconsciously present in various aspects of digital marketing and advertising, including:

  • Ad creative: The images and messages used in ads can perpetuate gender stereotypes. For example, ads that show women in domestic roles and men in professional roles reinforce traditional gender norms. According to a study conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, women are still significantly underrepresented in ads. In a sample of over 2,000 commercials, only 37% of speaking characters were female.
  • Targeting: Ad targeting algorithms may use gender as a factor in deciding which users to show ads to. This can result in certain groups being excluded or only seeing certain types of ads. Unfortunately, the same goes for racial groups: ProPublica’s research shows that dozens of rental housing ads on Facebook are not shown to certain categories of users, such as African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina and Spanish speakers.
  • Pay gap: In industries where men are overrepresented, such as technology and finance, the gender pay gap can lead to a bias towards male-dominated ad campaigns and content.
  • Language: The language used in ad copy and messaging can also perpetuate gender stereotypes. For example, using words like “aggressive” or “ambitious” to describe men but not women reinforces traditional gender expectations.
  • Influencers: The use of influencers in digital marketing can also perpetuate gender bias. For example, female influencers may be expected to promote products related to traditionally feminine interests. Or, as Insider’s report on the gender pay gap among influencers shows, men earned 30% more per post than women did in 2021.

Age Bias

Participants of recent research by Age of Majority concluded that ads portrayed people aged 55 and older negatively. Respondents noted that ads frequently display mental deterioration, weakness, or a weak grasp of technology in relation to older audiences.

At the same time, three-quarters of consumers aged 55+ can be categorized as “Active Agers” – older adults who are mentally, socially, and digitally active. This group covers around 75 million consumers, controlling 70% of U.S. wealth and accounting for over 40% of all consumer spending. The research findings reinforce the idea that these stereotypes can be changed. Such a large audience would be an excellent target group for brands, as long as they provide a more authentic representation of active agers.

Racial Bias

Racial bias in advertising and digital marketing can manifest in various ways, often perpetuating stereotypes or excluding certain racial groups. Here are some examples:

  • Lack of Diversity: Advertising campaigns frequently feature predominantly white models, excluding people from diverse racial backgrounds. This perpetuates the notion that whiteness is the norm or the standard of beauty. According to a 2019 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, only 29% of advertisements depicted people from underrepresented racial or ethnic backgrounds. Once cast for advertisements, women of color lacked access to makeup artists, stylists, and photographers. Plus, black characters are almost 2x as likely to be depicted in comedic roles rather than taken in a serious context. At the same time, white characters are 2x as likely to be portrayed as intelligent.
  • Tokenism: Sometimes, advertisers include individuals from diverse racial backgrounds in their campaigns, but their presence feels tokenistic or superficial. Tokenism occurs when companies include one or a few people from marginalized communities to create an appearance of diversity while the overall messaging and decision-making processes remain biased. This practice can be misleading and fail to address systemic racial inequalities.
  • Racial Stereotyping: Advertisements often perpetuate harmful stereotypes that reinforce racial biases. For example, portraying people of certain racial backgrounds in stereotypical roles, such as an Asian person being shown as an overachieving math nerd or a black person being portrayed as athletic but lacking intelligence. These stereotypes oversimplify and limit the portrayal of racial groups. According to the Advertising Standards Authority research, Black, Asian, and other Minority Ethnic (BAME) participants were almost 3 times more likely to feel under-represented or not represented at all in ads (66%) than White respondents (23%) and around half of BAME groups noted inaccurate portrayal.
  • Price Discrimination: ProPublica’s research has shown that some online retailers display different prices for products or services based on the user’s location or racial profiling. This practice can disproportionately affect certain racial groups by offering them higher prices or limiting access to discounts, perpetuating economic disparities.
  • Inclusive Language and Imagery: Advertisers may overlook the importance of using inclusive language and imagery representing diverse racial backgrounds. This oversight can alienate potential customers and reinforce feelings of exclusion. Brands that proactively embrace inclusive marketing can attract a wider audience and build stronger connections with their customer base.

Overcoming Bias

In an era where customer experience and social responsibility are significant, the solution to bias lies in identifying and eliminating these biases in any creative vertical, starting with market segmentation to the brand strategy.

Does a segmentation present accurate demographic information, or is it based on trends from previous results? Does your brand’s goal naturally match with it, or was it implemented merely to generate some “brand noise” by utilizing pre-existing prejudices towards minority groups?

Working with stereotypes and biases is lazy marketing, which is why inclusion has always been complex, as it gives marketers more cards to put in their stack. Let’s focus on what we, as marketers, can do to be less biased:

  • Provide sensitivity training and education to marketing teams about cultural sensitivity, unconscious biases, and the impact of racial stereotypes. This way, the staff can better recognize their own biases and make informed decisions that prioritize inclusivity in marketing strategies.
  • Partner with diverse content creators, influencers, and employees who can provide authentic perspectives and reach diverse audiences. Peloton welcomed their first adaptive training consultant to provide accessible and inclusive training to people regardless of their fitness abilities and ambitions.
  • Collect user feedback to understand how different racial groups perceive your marketing campaigns.
  • Conduct focus groups and user testing with diverse participants to identify potential biases and make necessary adjustments. This process allows you to refine your strategies and ensure that they are inclusive and culturally sensitive.
  • When using targeted advertising algorithms, regularly review and assess the data sources and algorithms to ensure they are not perpetuating biases. Implement measures to prevent discriminatory ad targeting and regularly monitor for any unintended biases. It may involve working with data scientists or experts to ensure the algorithms are fair and unbiased.
  • Partner with organizations and initiatives that promote diversity and inclusion to gain insights, access diverse talent pools, and build relationships with communities that have been historically marginalized. This can help in developing more inclusive marketing strategies and fostering positive change. Google partnered with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDI) to study trends in the screen and speaking time of characters in scripted television over the last 12 years.
  • The basics are: ensure that advertising and marketing campaigns feature a diverse range of racial backgrounds, reflecting the demographics of the target audience. This includes models, influencers, and spokespersons from different racial and ethnic groups.
  • Craft advertising messages that challenge stereotypes. Avoid perpetuating biases by using inclusive language and imagery. Ikea’s Where Life Happens campaign captures contextually diverse and often uncomfortable situations instead of just focusing on the happy-go-lucky depictions of daily life.
    Don’t be diverse just for the sake of it – that one’s pretty clear. Trying to be something you’re essentially not passionate about at the core just breeds more division.

Summing Up

We all have some degree of bias and assumption; it’s a very human thing. But it is in our power to challenge these thoughts and consciously reshape our perception. No matter the industry, it’s critical to consider how this will affect your work. Being a marketer or someone in charge of choosing which groups and communities appear in ads, as well as how they do, can make a difference. Learning to incorporate equity into your marketing starts with being aware of the blind spots. 


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