Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

How some advertisers are secretly working to make us less prejudiced

Think again ... marketing messages can be a powerful tool in confronting unconscious bias Image: Anete Lusina

Lisa Sherman
President and CEO, Ad Council
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Advertising, at its heart, is about motivating people to make a snap judgement. We give you 15 seconds of an image and we want that image to so move you, to so implore you, to so motivate you – that you fall in love with a brand, that you take action, that you do something anew.

It may seem puzzling, then, to hang our hats on advertising as a means to eradicate snap judgements and to confront bias. And yet, it’s one of the most powerful tools we have.

Skilled advertisers have the ability to make or break stereotypes, and the communications industry can have a huge impact on how audiences view those around them. It’s why we at the Ad Council partnered with a coalition of major global brands and individual non-profits to create the Love Has No Labels campaign, an initiative that uses advertising and communication to strip away implicit bias.

A still from the Ad Council's Love Has No Labels video campaign

So, as we mark International Zero Discrimination Day, let’s take a closer look at how advertising can help to dismantle prejudice.

What is implicit bias?

Take a random sampling of your friends, neighbours or colleagues and you’ll probably find that no one self-identifies as racist, sexist or a perpetrator of any kind of blatant discrimination. According to the Perception Institute, the vast majority of Americans consider themselves to be unprejudiced.

But, here are some tough facts: 52% of US Hispanics report that they have experienced discrimination or have been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity. African Americans make up only 13% of the US population and 14% of reported monthly drug users, but they make up 37% of those arrested for drug-related offenses. Nearly 86% of LGBT youth report being bullied or harassed at school, compared with 27% of the general population.

So what accounts for this disparity in how we think and how we act? A lot of it comes down to our subconscious. In fact, 98% of our thinking is done subconsciously – and that’s where we collect and store implicit bias.

Our brains create shortcuts so that we can act and react quickly. We are constantly bombarded by media images that prime our brains to make these shortcuts, and many of us live in communities and attend schools and institutions where most people looks similar to us. Unless disrupted, stereotypes embedded in our brains can turn into implicit bias and, over time, discrimination.

Have you read?

From dream to screen

To see the power of communication, take a look at how the global conversation around LGBT acceptance has changed in the past decade.

A lot of people credit the TV show Will and Grace for fundamentally changing hearts and minds in the years leading up to the marriage-equality revolution. Thanks to the show’s popularity, a large portion of the American public was exposed to an endearing and fully three-dimensional character in Will – and for many it was their first exposure to a gay man that didn’t rely on stereotypes.

Will and Grace was just the start, but it helped pave the way for Logo, the first TV network in the US for and about LGBT people, as well as others hit series such as Modern Family, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Transparent and, yes, The Walking Dead. We even had the coming-out of Sulu on Star Trek.

Today, GLAAD reports that 4.8% of the 895 characters on scripted TV shows are openly LGBTQ, the greatest percentage the survey has ever found. Ending implicit bias is not just who we know in our lives but also the reflections of our lives on TV and in other media. Just 10 years after the end of Will and Grace, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of marriage equality, supporting lesbian and gay couples.

Image: GLAAD 2016 Where We Are on TV report

Make the unconscious conscious

Recognizing the power of communication tactics like these, we at the Ad Council knew that we had to create a campaign that would work to eliminate implicit bias regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality, age and ability. Launched in partnership with a group of non-profit, corporate and media partners, Love Has No Labels started as a public service announcement. The film captured the reaction of real audiences as diverse couples, friends and families emerged from behind an X-ray screen. The video has been viewed more than 164 million times globally, making it the second-most viewed video on YouTube in 2015.

Why did audiences gravitate toward the film? Perhaps because it defied expectations but didn’t wag a finger. When you see the outline of a couple’s skeleton, your mind automatically fills in the blanks about what they look like in real life. When that assumption is challenged, it’s eye-opening; it makes conscious the unconscious mental shortcuts we use daily.

Building upon this formula, we released a new round of work just two weeks ago, on Valentine’s Day, called Fans of Love. The focus of the work plays on a typical sports-arena kiss cam, surprising us with the diversity of those featured while highlighting similarities in the unconditional love expressed. Check it out below. You can also take a quiz to assess your own biases.


What can advertisers do?

Professional communicators are in the business of using images to trigger associations. The problem, of course, is that every image is infinitely coded with multiple and varied subliminal associations. Because reactions to images vary so widely, some ads can unintentionally perpetuate negative stereotypes.

The chief marketing officer of Unilever, Keith Weed, recently shared internal research showing that just 3% of Unilever ads show women in positions of power, 2% show women being intelligent and 1% present women as having a sense of humour. Not only was this a courageous admission on behalf of one of the largest advertisers, but Weed also used it to launch new commitment to changing the ratio and to actively promoting strong women in their work. In partnership with the Association of National Advertisers, Unilever launched the progressive #SeeHer campaign, vowing to promote more accurate portrayals of women in advertising.


The communications industry plays a critical role in making society more tolerant. If we air stereotypical images, we are perpetuating prejudice and bias. If we create more inspired, authentic images, we help to change the conversation and ultimately reduce prejudice and discrimination.

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