Helianthus Advising, as a business, has not commented on Black Lives Matter over the past two weeks. While my personal accounts have been active on the subject, I’ve been thinking about how to come forward as a business to take a stand. You see, to me, a simple “pretty graphic” saying “we care” was not enough.

Then, I got to thinking about college and the marketing industry in general. When I was taking marketing classes, one professor always stuck out. His quotes about stereotypes have stayed with me – but not for the right reasons.

We’ve Taught Our Marketing Students to be Subconcously Racist

In one of my first marketing classes, the teacher would say the following quote (or something very similar) every single class:

“You can’t be racist in marketing. We create ads based on groups of people who are similar and who we can target. These stereotypes always come from somewhere. Use them.”

His theory was that we just target groups most likely to buy from us, and that couldn’t be racist. One example, young white men buy Honda civics (the car I have.) Why target anyone else – female, black, Asian – when they just don’t buy those cars? Well, multiple reasons (that we’ll get into in a later post.)

We’ve Taught Our Marketing Students to Judge

Then came one class where I was targeted, not for my race – but my background. We were talking about stereotypes again. At the time, I was thinking about moving to Portland after graduation (that never happened.) At some point, this came up in the class discussion, and he said:

“If you move out of the south, people will think you’re dumb. That’s what everyone else thinks about a southern accent.”

I agreed, after all, what else was I supposed to do when a professor says something like that? But I never forgot.

The Marketing Industry is Racist…

I can say with certainty that he was wrong on both accounts – on top of being racist and prejudice. Authentic diversity is vital in advertising (even when one group is more likely to buy) and people don’t think I’m dumb just because of my accent (though individuals in the past have.)  What bothers me most is, that particular professor was the owner of a large marketing firm and taught multiple classes every semester – for years. He was responsible for instilling outdated beliefs onto new students – continuing the cycle.

Racial Bias is Everywhere – And That’s the Problem

While ads are getting better in some industries (car ads are slightly better about showing all races and genders), marketing is still very racist. For example, my husband has eczema. A few days ago, he went to the store to get some lotion to help with an outbreak on his arm. While there, he noted that half of the bottles were “science-based” or used “the latest technology,” and the other half came with a “cure from Africa” or “worked perfectly on colored skin.”

Now, this might not seem odd, until you learn that eczema is treated the same no matter the skin color. The bottle of Vaseline Excema Lotion my husband got was just as good for an African American with the same skin problems. Those bottles touting “cures from Africa” were targeting African Americans in an attempt to get them to pay more for what was likely the same thing.

Sure, NOT ALL marketing firms are bad. Some do great work.

It might seem strange to say “marketing is racist” while saying, “stereotypes are bad.” Am I judgemental myself? Perhaps. Yet, as an industry overall – there are certainly racist undertones – and many times OVERtones. Want proof? It’s not just me who thinks this way. Take a look at what AdWeek and DigiDay have to say. Then, check out what happened with VW recently over on Bloomberg.

It seems like VW would have known better – they should have known better. This isn’t the Aunt Jemima mammy logo from over 100 years ago. We know better and should act better. Yet, they, just like Gucci and their “Blackface Sweater,” didn’t. Possibly because racism, prejudice, and “using” stereotypes have been taught to marketers as okay for generations. To the point where we don’t even think about it, it’s our unconscious bias. So… how do we fix the problem?

Fight Back with Active and Honest Diversity

Helianthus Advising thinks something’s not quite right in the marketing industry. It’s up to marketers (aka us) to make the change.  We need to admit that what we do can hurt people – and can spur further harm. Then, we need to utilize authentic diversity, inclusiveness, and honesty in each campaign we create. Marketing teams should be comprised of people with varied backgrounds, races, cultures, sexes, genders, and beliefs. Finally, we should make sure any ad we create is diversity tested. Ask a diverse group of people what they think.

Does it target our customers without hurting others?
Does it portray the real world’s diversity?
Could we do better?

(Learn More About Diversity in Marketing and How You Can Help Here)

So… What IS Helianthus Advising Doing?

I’m no longer a marketing student. I’m not a “marketing assistant” without a voice in a large firm. I’m the owner of a business, and that gives me a voice. Helianthus Advising has always had a no-list. Industries we don’t work in for personal ethical or moral reasons. It’s never really been written before (at least for the public to see.) However, that no-list is getting expanded and written publicly right now. What’s more, our Sponsor a Nonprofit Program launched this year with the third quarter’s focus being a black-owned nonprofit focused on helping the local (Atlanta-area) community.

Helianthus Advising’s Sponsor a Nonprofit Program

Right now, our Sponsor a Nonprofit Program, is just starting. This quarter, we donated our first “sponsored” space to Texas 4000’s Tribute Gala to help them raise money. While more details will be forthcoming, we’ve decided that next quarter we’ll be helping an Atlanta-area black-owned nonprofit. Look out for more as more information is gathered.

Our No-Go Industry List:

  • Coal/Oil/Gas: In our opinion, these industries actively harm the planet and contribute to global warming. We won’t take part in that, so we’ve made a pact to never take any client from this industry. However, alternative power is still something we love – and an industry we actively work in.
  • Medicine: The medical industry is rife with scams and unfair pricing practices that harm those in need. Holistic medicine is full of snake-oil and sleazy salesmen that prey on unsuspecting clients. Rather than take hours to vet each potential client in order to find “the good ones” (there are many, we know,) we’ve marked this industry off our list so we can have more time with our current clients.
  • Academics: The student should write term papers, scholarship applications, essays, or any other graded work. Honesty and integrity aside, that’s how they learn! That’s why we never “do the work for them.”

Our No-Go Job List:

  • Unjust Targeting: In the past, we had one client ask us to “write a piece that we can put out to target the gays and get sales.” While we said no then, we never made a clear rule about the subject. Now, we stand firm in our belief that no group should be targeted with scammy marketing just for sales.
  • Fake Cause Marketing: Marketing agencies are ripe with “please make me look better” requests. We refuse to create “black lives matter” or “pride” pieces for groups who have done nothing for, show no past care about, or have no real plans to help these causes.

These lists grow as we learn more about our community and how we can best help the world. In addition, this is just our list – based on our beliefs, morals, and ethics. Many other agencies take on medical and energy clients – and that’s perfectly fine. What we hope is that these lists do just a bit to spur change in an outdated industry. Every agency should make sure their ethics and morals align with the work they create.

Marketers are responsible for every ad you see and every commercial you hear. It’s our job to make sure representation, inclusivity, and honesty there at all times. From a Facebook post for a small mom and pop shop to a radio commercial for a mega-corporation, we hold the key to diverse marketing – in all sizes and shapes.

Helianthus Advising is here with you.

Black Lives Matter.

~ Ashley Madden, Founder