The Ugly Business of Visual Bias in Marketing & Advertising

silhouette of woman standing in front of neon yellow and white lights with a neon blue holographic image over her eyes as the header image for the article about how visual bias in marketing and advertising campaigns impacts perceptions

Honesty hour: one of my guilty pleasures is watching reruns from older seasons of MTV reality show Catfish.

The show features people who request help to figure out if someone they’ve bonded with online is a real person or a hoax.

Or in other words, a catfish.

Per Wikipedia:

“On the internet, a ‘catfish’ is someone who creates fake personal profiles on social sites using someone else’s pictures and false biographical information to pretend to be someone else.”

Nowadays virtual-first communication is fairly common. We’ve become a swipe-left-or-right society and are familiar with the signs that someone is less than authentic.

But in its heyday, Catfish plotlines depicted the adjustments to communicating and forming relationships entirely online. 

What was always most interesting to me was how people on Catfish professed their devotion or love for the person they’d connected with online. They swore they felt something that transcended the Internet and would last the test of time, no matter who the potential catfish was in reality.

Until they actually saw the person in the flesh.

The reactions were always awkward when the two people finally met and judged each other face-to-face.The declarations of love and “looks don’t matter” refrain ended there every episode.

The true image of the catfish didn’t match up with the visual expectation, which created an immediate rift.

Because looks DO matter. Duh, right?

They matter a lot.

In life in general, but particularly in marketing and advertising.

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Recently I posted on Linkedin about how I didn’t have a profile picture on any of my social media accounts for years.

It was less a matter of insecurity and more a matter of uncertainty on how it would impact my personal brand. (Privacy also played a key role in my decision, but that’s a topic for another article.)

I’ve seen a few people argue the point that everyone should have a profile photo. Everyone should add their photo to their email signature. Everyone should send video messages with sales outreach.

screenshot of search results for images related to the word "business man," all white men. which shows how algorithms can further visual bias by creating associations between certain words and certain images.

Images can lend credibility and relatability. They can build trust before any words are exchanged.

While choosing the right image counts for a lot when it comes to both personal and corporate branding, it’s not easy. Part of the complication comes from societal perceptions around beauty, perceptions that can bias and influence thoughts about you before relationships even start.

The Connection Between Beauty Standards and Visual Bias

The advantages of beauty can be felt in every area of our lives. 

(And by beauty I mean the standards society says equate to attractiveness.)

  • Researchers found that criminals perceived to be unattractive are given fines up to 304.88% higher on average than more attractive criminals. 
  • A study found that good looking men earn 17% more, while good-looking women earn 12% more, than those considered unattractive.
  • Professors who earned higher “hotness” scores on were found to earn an average of 6% more than their less hot colleagues. 
image of a little brown skinned boy holding a teddy bear and looking adoringly up at a sweetly smiling black man, presumably his father, while they sit on picnic table benches outdoors

Complicating matters further, notions of beauty vary slightly between communities and are impacted by factors entirely out of our control, such as age, gender and race.

To use race as an example, the effects of racial bias play a substantial role in perception and judgment.

One study found that Black men receive an average of 19.1% longer sentences than white men. 

Another particularly interesting study by the American Psychological Association asked both police officers under age 37 and a variety of white women enrolled at public US universities to rate the innocence of Black, white and Latino boys based solely on physical appearance. 

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Both groups indicated that Black boys starting at the age of 10 appeared “significantly less innocent” than both white and Latino children of the same age. And they estimated the ages of the Black children to be at least 4.5 years older.

You can imagine how that might impact treatment of Black children.

graph from Pew Research Center showing the disparities in incarceration rates between races and genders. Black men and women are incarcerated at a higher rate than White and Hispanic adults in the U.S.

To continue along the vein of how race impacts our visual perception of other people, you may also have heard of the “own-race bias,” or “other-race effect.” 

It says that “own-race faces are better remembered when compared with memory for faces of another, less familiar race.” 

So you’ll have a harder time recognizing and recalling the faces of people who aren’t of the same race, especially if it’s a race you aren’t frequently exposed to.

So how does all of this impact brand and marketing design?

In sum, appearance provides the first signal that helps people start making decisions.

Visual storytelling is equally, if not more, impactful than copy and text-based content.

Research shows customers will connect dots more quickly when there are images involved rather than just copy.

A study by the Google research team revealed we as website users start forming judgments of a brand within 17 milliseconds based solely on visual aspects of a website.

When we select images to represent a brand in various campaigns, we have to consider both our own biases as well as those of our audiences.

And the track record shows improvement is needed.

Representation in marketing and advertising materials has historically been limited.

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Only 19% of people featured in ads are from a minority group.

And while “people with disabilities make up 20% of the population,” they represent less than 2% of media images, according to the Disability and Media Alliance Project.

AARP, a US interest group for people over age 50, released a report on ageism in marketing and advertising campaigns. 

The study showed certain industries, like technology, rarely show people over 50 in marketing or social media images. 

And when people over age 50 are depicted, it’s usually in a negative context. 

It made headlines when queen of my heart celebrity-philanthropist-businesswoman Rihanna chose 67-year-old JoAnni Johnson to be a model for her luxury fashion line with LMVH, Fenty. 

Because it’s unheard of.

Not only in the beauty industry, but in marketing and media as a whole.

(But Rihanna is no stranger to setting new standards for inclusive marketing.)

Seeing yourself reflected in marketing, advertising and the media is important. It also impacts our perception of a brand.

Multiple studies reveal people belonging to ethnic minority groups in the US responded more favorably to ads that feature someone who looked like they were of the same ethnicity/race. (As if this is breaking news.)

photo of diverse group of models with different skin tones and of different ages in a marketing and advertising campaign for rihanna's fenty luxury fashion brand, which combats visual bias with inclusive images

Using Images to Combat Visual Bias

I recently interviewed Enrique Hoyos, the head of marketing at Pexels, a resource that provides over 3M free photos and videos for download. I’ve used their library a ton at the variety of small businesses and startups I’ve worked for. 

Part of our conversation included the visual bias that affects marketing and storytelling. 

Enrique is a huge believer in the power of visual storytelling. 

“How much does imagery actually affect the world? It has a huge amount of power to normalize things. It changes culture.”

Here’s what Enrique had to say about how Pexels counteracts algorithmic bias:

“If everyone’s clicking on the image of a white man, like when you search for business and you’re just clicking on the board room of white people, that’s telling the algorithm, like that’s it.

And if people keep clicking on it, the more it gets up there. And the more it’s up there, the more people will click it. 

It’s just a vicious cycle. 

So what we’ve done and are continuously doing is actually introducing a human touch to the algorithm. So for all the search terms, we not only let the algorithm pick stuff, but our curation team actually goes in and handpicks a certain number of photos.

screenshot of a search for stock photos related to "love" on the pexels website, which returns a diverse and inclusive group of photos. the pexels team has worked to combat how algorithms impact visual bias with more diverse photo selection.

That gets boosted into the algorithm to show that diversity. To add that opportunity for those photos to be seen and clicked on. 

We did that last June. There was a whole focus on PRIDE, and we did it for ‘couple.’ We did it for ‘marriage,’ for all these things to be able to show not just heterosexual couples, but all kinds of couples.

And you could immediately see a huge amount of downloads on those photos that were not getting downloaded before. Because people have to search, ‘I want a homosexual couple’ to display that. And now people have the option to just be like, I want [photos of] a couple. And then I see beautiful photos of people just loving each other.

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To add to what he said, remember the own-race bias mentioned earlier in this article?

Researchers found that showing Caucasian babies pictures of Chinese babies in picture books increased their ability to accurately recognize the faces of people of that race later on.

Representation matters when it comes to eliminating not only visual bias, but our overall mentalities toward people different than us. And exposure impacts our perception.

Marketers and advertisers have a great deal of say in the diversity of representation. In a large portion of the media.

Imagine the impact if more brands were mindful of that responsibility and the impact on audiences. 

Probably much more significant than putting out an occasional diversity statement on social media. 🤷‍♀️🤔

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