Discussion of How Marketing Still Needs Racial Redemption

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Dr. Sonja Martin Poole, Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of San Francisco 

Our nation is clearly in crisis. During a time focused on re-opening the economy after the onset of a viral pandemic, there are glaring signs that the United States is suffering from another type of pandemic—racism.  While conquering COVID-19 lies mainly in the hands of certain medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies, overcoming racism depends on everyone and everything, including marketing.

Over the last few weeks, throughout cities across the United States and the world, people have been taking to the streets to express their pain and anger over the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black people killed by police and vigilante whites. At the same time, videos of racial violence and racists threats toward Black people in America are flooding social media and news outlets.

Racism is not a new disease. It is a malady that has deep historical roots. It is a system of racial oppression and violence steeped in colonial and imperialist practices that sought to legitimize White privilege and power. That means it is not just a sum of the prejudicial acts of individual “bad seeds.” Rather, it is ingrained in the fabric of our society. Despite the elimination of explicit state-sanctioned policies, such as segregation under Jim Crow, many overtly racist practices are now interwoven into our institutions and normalized, and have a reverberating impact that still significantly affects the lives of racially targeted people.

So, what do these actions have to do with marketing? The short answer is, everything. Interpersonal, systemic and institutionalized racism are often normalized, immortalized, and (re)produced through marketing and marketplace practices.

Take the case of facial recognition technology, an artificial intelligence (AI) tool that is dramatically transforming industries, institutions, workplaces, and consumer behavior. The technology is being used to help accelerate marketing activities and offer conveniences that are meant to assist consumers in the consumption process (e.g., automatic logins, personalization/account information).

Major corporations such as Unilever are also using facial expression technology in the labor market to assess job candidates’ facial and linguistic performance against information compiled from successful prior interviews. It is often touted as a race-, gender-, and otherwise bias-free solution to making decisions and/or performing marketing tasks in an objective manner.

However, as facial recognition becomes more of a norm in the marketplace – used to unlock smartphones, advertise special offers, curate VIP treatment at sporting events, verify identification for air travel and more – debates on whether or not it is good for society have ensued.

One major issue identified with such software has been that it has misidentified people of color as non-human, often as animals (see example of “Google black girl”). As is the case with artificial intelligence generally, the accuracy of facial recognition tools depends on a machine’s ability to detect algorithms “taught” to it through the use of data sets curated by human engineers. Consequently, machine learning can perpetuate racial biases that exist in society. 

Studies in marketing which address the use of AI technologies generally emphasize how consumer experiences are enhanced through AI-powered applications and assume that the impact is equal across all consumers. But these assumptions ignore disparities in lived experiences. These assumptions also ignore research evidence which indicates inherent (automated) bias in AI technology. This automated bias has serious implications in the treatment of and opportunities for people of color.

The issue outlined here is just one example of the insidious ways that racism operates in marketing. Keeping silent, becoming overly defensive and overgeneralizing are other ways racism is perpetuated. To adequately address racial injustice, it is important to move our discourse in marketing and business beyond marginalization in the workplace and harmonious interpersonal relationships. We must take a close look at the impact of racism in marketplaces and how these effects are shaped by intersecting forms of systemic oppression.

The good news is that marketing and business leaders are starting to accept the challenge to acknowledge, affirm and act in ways that promote equity and justice and activate meaningful change. As was proclaimed by authors in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “racism isn’t just a Black people’s problem its everyone’s problem because it erodes the fabric of society.”

It’s good that certain companies finally have resolved to remove overtly racist branding (e.g., Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben), but as the example of AI-powered facial recognition shows, there’s still more, often less conspicuous marketing that needs to change in order to offer people of color the respect they deserve.  Framed positively, many opportunities remain for racially-aware organizations to redeem the field in pursuit of more “Mindful Marketing.”


This article was adapted from “Operationalizing Critical Race Theory in the Marketplace” a manuscript under review at the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 


About the Author: Dr. Sonja Martin Poole is an associate professor of marketing at the University of San Francisco and an internationally recognized lecturer and researcher on transformative and multicultural marketing strategy and marketing education.