Race is defined by shared physical characteristics (but not genetic commonalities), while ethnicity is defined by shared cultural characteristics like language and traditions. Marketers should take care when representing either. Both have been used for centuries as an excuse for discrimination, producing destructive stereotypes and implicit biases that still run deep.
Insights & ideas
Break the mold
There are many pervasive racial stereotypes in advertising and the media landscape at large—and playing into any of them, even seemingly positive ones, can have negative effects. So pay attention to the roles, activities, interests, and physical qualities of your characters, and make sure they don’t reinforce stereotypes. Aim to portray authentic, multifaceted characters every time. Your customers will thank you. Sixty-four percent of people are more likely to consider or purchase a product when they see an inclusive ad. The numbers are even higher among Latinx+ (85%), Black (79%), and Asian American and Pacific Islander (79%) people.1
We should incorporate diversity into everything we do because it’s the right thing to do, not to check off boxes. Make sure people of different races and ethnicities aren’t just ancillary characters or there simply to signal diversity. Avoid tokenizing by giving everyone a rich story and a fully realized identity.
No joking matter
Serious issues should be treated as such. So don’t gloss over or minimize racial discord to create marketing that’s more palatable to broader audiences. But don’t romanticize it either—the very real struggles of colonialism, slavery, and the civil rights movement shouldn’t be used to sell dish soap or cellphones. The same goes for anti-racism messaging. Allyship should be a brand’s year-round commitment, not a campaign concept.
Appreciate, don’t appropriate
Many cherished traditions and customs of marginalized groups have been repackaged as entertainment for white people. (Think of the Native American headdress worn in a Victoria’s Secret fashion show
Look past the surface
Remember that any group of people, even one with many commonalities, is far more diverse than it first appears. Race and ethnicity may be important parts of peoples’ identities, but things like language, religion, and socioeconomic background can also factor in. The experience of a second-generation American of Vietnamese descent may be vastly different from that of a recent immigrant—and both deserve to see themselves reflected in marketing.
- Zalis, Shelley, “Inclusive ads are affecting consumer behavior
, according to new research,” Think with Google, Nov 2019.
- Chiu, Bonita, “Addressing The Ad Industry's Sticky Problem With Race,” Forbes, Jul 16, 2019.