In this blog, we frequently report on advertisements where brands have gotten called out for being racist and sexist and for being insensitive to racial and other cultural issues.  There was the H&M ad which promoted a sweatshirt, modeled by a black child, which featured the saying, "Coolest Monkey in the Jungle."  There was the Groupon ad that promoted boots that were available in the color, "[n-word] brown."  There was the Redditt ad promoting, which is a dating site for white people.  And the Alitalia ad featuring an actor in blackface.  And the list goes on. 

This is a moment in time when we're asking ourselves, as advertising lawyers, marketers, and members of a larger community, what more can we do to help ensure that -- in the words of President Obama -- "the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts."  

There's lots of work to be done, clearly.  But, for those working in advertising, one thing we can do right away is work to do a better job ensuring that racist and other culturally insensitive content never makes it into our advertising.  Here are a few suggestions of some concrete things that marketers can do to avoid the kinds of missteps that other brands have made. 

  • Brand guidelines.  Ensure that you have a set of up-to-date brand guidelines that defines what you consider to be acceptable content in your advertising -- and be specific about what you consider to be unacceptable.  And share these guidelines with your agencies and others that you work with. 
  • Training.  Train your teams, and others that you work with, about your guidelines and what content is acceptable.
  • Culture of compliance.  Setting the tone, providing direction, and creating a culture of compliance comes from top.  When the CEO, the CMO, the CCO, or someone else with a "C" in his or her title draws a line in the sand about what is and is not acceptable, people are more likely to listen. 
  • Approval procedures.  Create defined approval procedures to ensure that content is properly reviewed before it is published. 
  • Clearance.  Warn your teams that the media where you plan to run the advertising needs to approve the content as well.  Many television networks, social media platforms, and other media outlets have strict guidelines that prohibit racist and other offensive content.  For example, ABC will not accept advertising which "misrepresents, ridicules, or attacks an individual or group on the basis of age, color, national origin, race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability."  Similarly, Facebook prohibits advertising that discriminates or encourages discrimination "based on personal attributes such as race, ethnicity, color, national origin, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, family status, disability, medical or genetic condition." 
  • Third party content.  Many retail sites, and other brand sites, include third party content.  This content often isn't subject to the same rigorous vetting procedures that the brand's own content goes through.  Consider what procedures you can put in place to help avoid unacceptable content being posted. 
  • Diverse teams.  Sometimes, brands that post offensive content say that they simply didn't realize how the content would be received.  Consider whether the teams that are working on your advertising are sufficiently diverse so that you're less likely to be surprised by how the content will be perceived.  And make sure that all team members -- no matter how junior or what his or her role may be -- feel empowered to speak up to raise issues that they are concerned about. There are some great resources out there to help brands and agencies think about these issues and build more diverse teams, such as AdColor and (our client) Circle.  (Diverse teams may help lead to more diverse casting as well.)
  • Testing.  Similarly, doing consumer testing of campaigns, before they are released widely, can help brands get invaluable input about unintended messages that are conveyed. 
  • Industry initiatives.  There are also many industry initiatives -- that you could get involved in -- that are working to sensitize people to these types of issues and to advocate for change.  For example, just to name one, we've blogged about the work of the Unstereotype Alliance.