What is unconscious bias? 

“Can you make the skin color a bit darker?” The producer asked, shepherding me into my uncomfortable journey into recognizing unconscious bias. I had just finished a mockup of a football player in Adobe Illustrator — he was white.

 

And trust me, talking about skin color at work is uncomfortable. 

 

You know those flares militaries fire into the nighttime sky for illuminating battlefields? That is what an open-air discussion of race can feel like in the workplace. 

 

And as with flares, there are no warnings, just a bright explosion — it’s there for everyone to behold. The flares then fall unhurriedly to earth, fading over time.

 

Race might not come up very often in the workplace, but it is suddenly awkward and drapes over any room. Frankly, it should probably happen more. Understanding and more constructive dialogue would be our reward.

 

Before getting nervous or uncomfortable, dear reader, know that I don’t plan to outstep my depth here. This is about unconscious bias in your company’s video — I’m going to stray from too much history or graduate-level discussion on race and gender because I’m a Communication major, Circa 1999 “Go ‘Wick!'”

 

However, I plan to touch on firsthand experiences as someone who has observed unconscious bias and exhibited unconscious bias.

 

So what even is unconscious bias?

 

Have you ever initially assumed that a woman working at a hospital is a nurse? In the 1980s, many teachers would ask if my mother were a nurse when they discovered she worked at MCG (a well-known hospital in Georgia’s third-largest city). She was a cardiologist.

 

Assuming that women in hospital settings are nurses is one example of unconscious bias.

 

imagine a nurse. is it a woman?
CPB London’s “Imagine” campaign that combats unconscious bias.

 

And one of many that CPB London recently began tackling with a creative campaign that tricks viewers into exposing them.

 

Unconscious bias in design choices

 

Another example of unconscious bias can deal with race. As I alluded to at the top, in 2008, I was working on a five-second ID for a tv station focusing on the local pro-football team. A football team that recently changed its name over reasons of race — after years of fending off opponents to the name.

 

The project itself, and a sports-themed one at that, was a blast. It took me off the usual news station graphic requests, which typically included mugshots of people who did crimes, maps pinpointing car crashes, etc. 

 

The only drawback for the project was the tight deadline. I wasn’t ever allowed to savor creative projects — it needed to be completed quickly to begin the following day in commercial breaks sprinkled throughout daytime programming.

 

And in my rush, I exposed my unconscious bias in my company’s video. 

 

“We might think that we are really fair-minded and egalitarian, but [unconscious bias] often springs up on us when we least expect it, often when we are tired or distracted or in a hurry.” Pragya Agarwal, a behavioral and data scientist, told NPR’s Short Wave.

 

I made the football player’s skin colors match my own. My African American producer for the project suggested we make the player African American.

 

As the young over-confident artist, I was annoyed — I felt my designs were beyond reproach. And I always believed myself fair-minded. 

 

Yet I failed to consider the nearly 70% of black athletes playing in the NFL in 2008. I probably salved my bruised ego with “there are white NFL players; I’m not racist.”

 

I realize now that I was annoyed I hadn’t initially considered anything. I hadn’t defined my character’s race other than just clicking somewhere in the light orange region of my Photoshop color window. 

 

Don’t just accept your unconscious bias, change

 

I also failed to consider our viewership and potential viewership in Washington, DC, and Prince George’s County. Both places are home to majority black populations, with Prince George’s County overwhelmingly so (in DC, the demographics have been tightening).

 

I also did a terrible job on the execution side; the character still looks Caucasian. I may have collapsed the character for animating in After Effects and tried to change the skin color via the levels filter rather than illustrating anew… Nevertheless, terrible job.

 

A football player has trouble touching his toes
The football player I created without thinking about unconscious bias. 

 

And not to worry, younger self, tripping on unconscious bias is probably an industry standard. Consider that over 80% of those working in advertising are white. According to Entrepreneur, “we have a natural tendency to produce content that reflects our known worlds. Unfortunately, this means that many advertisers [forget] brands’ full target audiences — whether intentional or not.”

 

When we create messaging, we absolutely need to start taking into account all of the people who could engage in that message. All people should feel as if they are seen and reflected in our messaging.

 

This means actively reprograming our personal bias by intentionally incorporating those different from us, Forbes suggests. “When crafting campaigns, we must make sure that the diversity in the room represents the sociocultural depth and breadth of our audience.”

 

Unfortunately, deciding to counteract unconscious bias in your company’s video could be just the start of a more painful journey.

 

If I can quickly compare from an entirely different place – my father would buy energy for his home from vendors who produced energy from renewable sources in the early aughts. It was far more expensive than typical energy sources.

 

Deciding to make a change for the better can often lead to unexpected pain points.

 

Unconscious bias in stock photo sites

 

At another TV station, a producer-friend, also African American, had a half-joke she would constantly air during exhaustive searches for African American stock footage. The joke was that we needed to start our own exclusive people of color stock site and then retire on top of a mountain of money. (And BTW, someone did exactly that — although I’m not sure if the founders of TONL have retired yet).

 

Stock video and imagery vendors can be deserts for finding stock models of color. For example, search iStock for “person riding skateboard” and check the “black” ethnicity box. You will get nearly 750 images. If you check the “white” checkbox, you will get about 8,600 photos.

 

This isn’t to bully iStock, I’m confident, based on personal history of endless stock site searches, to say that almost all vendors probably have a similar disparity. 

 

Thankfully, stock searches for African American models have vastly improved. Storyblocks has committed to having 20% of their stock contain “Black, Indigenous, and people of color by 2022.” And iStock has begun showcasing diversity of people of color, age, and people with disabilities. 

 

It wasn’t that long ago when I had my most uncomfortable Photoshop conversation. At that previous job, the producer and I spent hours scouring stock sites for a popular smartphone that we needed to be held in African American hands. 

 

This led to a departmental discussion on if we could change the model’s skin tone in Photoshop, and if so, should we? 

 

You want to talk about uncomfortable workplace conversations that ranks near the top for me.

 

Why is it so hard to find African American stock?!

 

Speaking of rankings, one issue with stock sites is sometimes algorithms weight results according to historical popularity and engagement. So a search for “person riding skateboard” might bring up images in their first-page search results that are affected by previous users’ preferences. 

 

Say that you are searching for tech-flavored imagery – previous users have probably searched through and made the best choices for tech. So your search is made easier by immediately showing you just the good stuff. And the mediocre tech imagery sinks to nether pages (see the bottom-feeders of a “tech backgrounds” search on iStock). It is honestly a great feature for some image searches, and it saves time.

 

bottom of the barrel stock imagery are bottom of the barrel for a reason
Algorithms push these examples to the bottom of the search results for a reason. (Courtesy: iStock)

 

Yet — it is a fraught feature for parsing imagery of people (BTW not saying iStock does this). Remember that most folks in US advertising are white, and some probably haven’t explored their own unconscious bias.

 

Quick decisions need to be made to finish jobs by the deadline. And so stock models who are white could be picked more often, skewing ranking systems further.

 

If you are searching for people and the stock site “only [relies] on engagement and popularity, [it is] going to skew towards white people.” Andrea Gagliano, Getty Images’ head of data science, told Axios.

 

And again, I don’t want to pick on stock sites; as I mentioned above, they are making strides towards improving their searches and collections. 

 

Yet, if I were a large stock company, I would stop encouraging new competition from plucky stock vendors such as TONL or Death to Stock (my personal fave). They are challenging the ideas of what stock photography looks like. 

 

Stock sites are just the gatekeepers

 

Stock sites offer up imagery from photographers from around the world. And stock photographers who supply stock sites may be taking photos of people they are comfortable with. Maybe they choose stock models based on their own unconscious bias or the folks they like to work with within their homogeneous circles.

 

I think these photographers should challenge themselves to take more inclusive photos — or at the very least, photographers should consider their bottom line. 

 

It is still challenging to find good stock models of color in specific tech, business, shopping, and leisure settings. Research them, shoot them, make money, all while making the world a better place.

 

For example, recently, I was looking for closeups of male, African American hands drawing in an architectural setting on Storyblocks. There was nothing. 

 

And by the way, if you are an architect of color, I suggest you film yourself working a bunch of different ways and rake in some extra cash as a stock model.

 

Anyway — next I looked for a video or still image of a hand holding the style of pen I was told architects use (when not drawing on their computers). I hoped to composite the hand over an architectural drawing in After Effects.

 

Again, nothing on Storyblocks, so I explored iStock — the closest I could find of the overhead angle was a hand holding a giant goddamn sharpie

 

I feel more comfortable using Photoshop to deep-fake an artist’s pen into a stock image’s hand rather than change the stock’s skin colors. It would still be way more work than it was worth — and might look terrible.

 

Maintaining change

 

Obviously, change can be an uncomfortable proposition — no one openly wants the status quo until they are forced to make large-scale changes in their routine. Then suddenly, the status quo can feel like a warm blanket beckoning you back into bed after morning alarms begin wailing.

 

Yet, clearly, the problem won’t fix itself. “Bias is not minimized or eliminated with just the right intention,” Randi Stipes wrote in a column for AdExchanger. 

 

Stipes points to the companies that made significant changes after the civil rights movements of 2020. Many brands “revealed their values to show the world where they stood – [but] it can’t be just a cycle. It must be a consistent commitment, or the bias – conscious and unconscious – will persist.”

 

And “maintaining a new behavior is the most challenging part of any behavior change,” said Dr. Lickerman for Psychology Today. “Changing a strongly entrenched habit requires changing our belief about that habit that penetrates deeply into our lives, continually manifesting that wisdom (and therefore that habit) requires [maintenance].”

 

You may very well be alone in a refusal of unconscious bias in your company video. 

 

You will have the thankless task of ensuring the cast and crew isn’t wholly homogeneous — that stock usage shows representation. And the final edit includes the tones and colors that represent all of your customers.

 

You don’t even have to sell it to company management as “doing the right thing.” Your company may need to do it to stay competitive.

 

African American, Asian American, and Native American buying power have “exploded over the past 30 years, up from $458 billion in 1990 to $3 trillion in 2020,” states J. Merritt Melancon on UGA Today. These groups’ buying power jumped from 10% to nearly 20% in the same timeframe.

 

Postscripting

 

I realize I’ve said a ton and should probably start winding down here. I want to reiterate that I am no scholarly expert; I have just been an advocate for inclusion and someone who has faltered with my own biases. I feel this makes me neither admirable nor awful, just human.

 

Thanks to the highly complex organ between our two ears, we can do some pretty neat shit as well as make mistakes. When I began working on this blog for 522, I was reminded of a project we worked on covering the subject. I rewatched it and realized I probably still have biases I haven’t explored. 

 

 

So, my ultimate advice would be that you not shoulder the responsibility of removing unconscious bias from your video yourself. Choose a video production service that shares your beliefs. Folks who will work with you on delivering your message in a way that is inclusive. And folks who will help you defend your vision constructively to the upper brass.

 

We can all improve the world a bit before we retire to the great keyframe in the sky.

 

Also, let’s keep the discussion going — if I missed anything, let me know. If you have your own wins with representation, share them! And if you want to keep embracing change, check out our thoughts on how to embrace change in your content marketing strategy.

 

And if you would like to read more of my massive missives, check out my personal blog, where I recently wrote about why online recipes are so much longer than they need to be.