Dealing With All The isms: Can Advertising Lead The Way?

A few days ago, I took part in an Advertising Week panel called “Let’s Face It: I’m Biased and So Are You.”

It was based on the soon-to-be-released book “Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships Across Differences “ by Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman.

Author Jana, who jokingly refers to her own “Negritude” along with a host of her other differences, was on the panel, along with moderator Helayne Spivak of VCU Brandcenter, Alain Sylvain of Sylvain Labs, and Brian Collins of Collins. 

Toward the end, an older white male ad exec in the audience spoke for a lot of people in acknowledging that bias is a topic he never even considered in the past while running his own businesses, and that he was too scared to bring it up now, lest he offend anyone.

Jana responded that it’s not his fault. “It’s the way our brains are wired,” she said. “Our brains can get in the way of equality and fairness.”  Her message is that unless we all acknowledge our own biases, and actively work on opening our minds to new wiring,  we won’t have authentic change.  



“Bias is in the air you breathe,” she writes of the attitudes we are born into. “We harbor bias that we have simply failed to reconsider as we mature.” Eventually, “unchecked bias can look like privilege.”

Failing to reconsider the bias we are born into as we mature made me think directly of 70-year-old Donald Trump. (MadBlog acknowledges its obviously pro-Hillary bias.) And it made me consider the idea that he honestly does not believe he is biased -- or, to use a word that has resurfaced for the first time in about 30 years, “bigoted.”

"There is an assault on everything we stand for," he said at a recent rally, "and we’re gonna stop the assault and make America great again."

We are all feeling raw and frustrated during this season of political extremes. We actually have to thank the Republican presidential candidate for making his viewpoints unabashedly clear, and allowing those of some of his supporters to surface: that as whites, they are tired of being the “bad guys” and that as a result of changing populations, the new economy and political correctness, they feel discriminated against and excluded.

Often, in even acknowledging that the idea that race and gender are fluid constructs, the pitched battles begin.  

Clinton’s candidacy has also awakened our culture to the subtle (and not so subtle) stereotypically sexist norms that still exist, and that to this day remain our default behavior.  

The Cosby trials and the sudden, unexpected termination of Roger Ailes from Fox News are just two of the recent incidents that have allowed long-hidden, horrifying behaviors to be excavated, forcing us to see bias with new eyes.

Our panel on bias followed “Sexism in Advertising and What Brands Should Do.“ Although we’d like to think otherwise -- because the focus on women’s equality has made some men feel like they are the victims -- its panelists touched on some new and sobering data from a recent 4As study: that at least 50% of women in the industry have experienced sexual harassment, and that 42% of the women polled felt that they were not “included in decision-making."

And those were only two of the many mini-seminars dealing with bias, sexism and the need for American advertising agencies to change. How long will this take?

The idea of integrating all-white agencies was the subject of a “Mad Men” episode based on an incident that took place 46 years ago outside the offices of Young & Rubicam, and resulted in a discrimination suit.

Ironically, the agency’s make-it-go-away instinct in response to the bad publicity had a great outcome, a gift that keeps on giving. As a partial response, Y&R launched the “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” campaign for the United Negro College Fund. It has proven to be one of the most compassionate and memorable tag lines ever created in advertising history, and remains effective to this day.

Still, the industry remains overwhelmingly white.

We have also been talking about the critical need to hire, train, and promote women in the ad ranks for at least 40 years. I have to laugh when I remember writing about entering a “post-feminist” world in the mid-1980s, because that's what I believed then. (That resurrected memory makes me want to use the word “rueful.”)

One note of encouragement in the ad world: We now have the awareness, the terms, and the new tools with which to act. But making agencies more diverse and gender-blind requires enlightenment and patience -- not to mention great expense. The first two qualities are not intrinsic to running any demanding, tech-based American workplace, especially at a grinding time in the economy, when work has to be done faster and cheaper.

But I do believe that the diversity situation will improve, if only because agencies have no choice. As has been reported lately, brand behemoths like HP and General Mills have announced new diversity requirements for any agency handling their business.

We have to get there, and deal with the fallout, one way or the other.

Because, to put an ironic spin on what was once said about General Motors, what’s good for General Mills is good for the U.S.A.
4 comments about "Dealing With All The isms: Can Advertising Lead The Way? ".
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  1. Len Stein from Visibility Public Relations, September 30, 2016 at 5:16 p.m.

    yes, the bias problem will fade  away (forget the song -'not fade away') when this generation of angry, old white men DIE off. As a Boomer dad of a Millennial I have Hope that his generation is 'color blind' and accepting of All people. As USA tips to a minority / majority society, power will shift too and we will live, hopefully, to witness the birth of a new, accepting America.

  2. Barbara Lippert from, October 1, 2016 at 10:25 a.m.

    A third major client just announced similar demands for diversity in their agency partners: Verizon.  

  3. Don Perman from self, October 1, 2016 at 11:33 a.m.

    Smart and insightful as always.  You offer here a fine history of the industry and this issue.  You're right, everyone benefits from diversity, as has been evident in so many other industries.  Why is it so hard in advertising? Embedded prejudice?  Or just paranoia about keeping one's job?  Whatever, the need for change seems clear.  Thanks for pointing it all up in the column. Sorry I couldn't hear the panel.

  4. Jim English from The Met Museum, October 6, 2016 at 2:48 p.m.

    The manufacturer of "sugarcoated fluorescent cereals" as you once referred to General Mills, is a surprising company to lead a charge for diversification. But they say they have greatly reduced sugar and artificial ingredients in their cereals. Will the Coo Coo Bird and Trix Rabbit really follow through?

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