Let’s Admit We All Have Bias

Let’s just say it: Everyone is biased. Yes, even in healthcare marketing.

As two people who have experienced bias due to race, gender, and/or sexual identity, we can safely say that no one is capable of avoiding bias at all times, knowingly or unknowingly, even when focused on getting patients and HCPs help and information they need. In healthcare marketing, bias may be introduced at any point, starting from the clinical research stage through to creative concepting. Does it matter if the bias is unintended? Well, without pre-empting the personal biases of marketers, our campaigns and messages may not be heard…or worse, alienate those we and our clients intend to help.

You May Think You’re Being Impartial, But…

The most common bias we see introduced is implicit bias. It’s the bias of not thinking of the realities of other people and assuming that patients or healthcare professionals (HCPs) have the same experience, race, identity, etc. as yourself. We believe we know that a HCP “likes this” or a patient “likes that” because we do. You imagine: “If I was this patient…” or “…if I want to convince this HCP to prescribe this, here’s what he or she would most likely do.”

When you put yourself in another’s shoes or draw on an experience from someone you know—or even from a past marketing campaign—some marketers may think they are being impartial. But those impressions and understandings may inherently be biased and may not apply to the current situation.

We Humans Have a Hard Time Clearing Our Cookies

Our smartphones and our choice of social media gives us the illusion that we are objective and absorbing objective information. In fact, since we choose our news sources and customize our feeds, what we ultimately create and believe to be the epitome of objectivity may actually be a collection of our approved beliefs and biases. And then, we project this cache of information onto the audience and anticipate what may be most relevant to them.

This creates an overall cognitive bias in our space. It’s not just about our beliefs and focus. We recall information that reflects our view of the world. It’s common to base a marketing strategy or creative based on something that went well in the market or made another client happy. And other times this “go-to” approach is familiar but not necessarily relevant.

Sometimes we do online research to accelerate our understanding about what may be effective with a specific target audience. That research may give the illusion that you are getting unbiased information, such as when we see search findings that rank highest or reflect a single situation. However, an internet search rarely presents the nuance of an audience around a health condition or around the personal, medical, and emotional journey one experiences in healthcare.

When Marketers Miss the Mark

Having diverse perspectives increases the chances of getting it right. Ensuring you have specific perspective of the target audience always increases the opportunity for success. That’s where the “Hi View” comes in. A Hi (Healthy Inclusion) review can help ensure work is inclusive and specifically reaches the audiences most impacted by the disease on which you are working.

For instance, we’ve heard marketers tout statistics that do not correlate the data with the audience they are trying to reach. Don’t show me creative featuring an Asian woman for a disease that impacts Black women the most or present a photo of a White man for an Asian female audience! How many times do we have to hear that for a Black patient we have to put a billboard in a barber shop?! It’s almost as if those people are a monolith and because it once worked in the past, someone assumes it will always work. It seems obvious to some of us, but not to all. As a result, this creativity is lazy and limited, and we never break the bias.

We were once in a creative review when a White male and White woman were sharing a concept for a breast cancer campaign targeted to Black women with some stereotypical and potentially offensive language. Luckily, it never saw the light of day because, aside from the racially stereotypical language, the concepting was completely out of touch. Those marketers were not thinking inclusively, and luckily people were in the room and on the team who were inclusive-minded marketers.

What Must Clients Do to Ensure Their Marketing Is Equipped to Address Diverse Audiences?

Think about inclusivity at every stage, including:

1. The first and most essential step to overcome marketing bias is to establish an inclusive company culture that drives people to think differently. Inclusivity around culture involves more representation on teams to decrease bias, and clearly defined working expectations that showcase inclusivity which are integral to an organization’s DNA. An inclusive culture means that everything a marketing organization does—from clinical trials to strategy and planning—gets people to think and ask about the cultural nuance of the audiences they intend to communicate with and engage.

2. Seek relevance starting with concepting. We have to work with clients to be sure they are thinking about their target patient/audience at the clinical trial stage. Often, people talk about penetrating rural areas or the inner city. However, sometimes the people doing the work have no connection to or experience in those environments. If we don’t have representation from the start, it sets off a spiral for everything to go wrong.

3. AI is only as good as the data we use. The idea that we can automatically segment an audience to create a campaign makes too many assumptions about audience experiences, attitudes, and access to healthcare, health conditions, and medicine, and can leave out key information that would lead to effective results. It is essential to have diverse perspectives to determine what data you need and where you get it.

It is often that an AI avatar is monocultural. Data collected through AI is often mass-market data rather than data pulled from the specific culture, life, and health experiences related to the patient or HCP audience one is targeting. Machine learning will result in bias based on the algorithms we set up. As we are talking about health equity and greater inclusion, we must address an organization-wide approach for looking at data.

4. Always push to get people to think beyond what they’ve personally done or experienced in the past. Your last best experience may be irrelevant. Even though many people may have worked on a single project targeting a specific demographic, it is often a risky practice to extrapolate from that marketing campaign for a campaign in the future, as you can get bad results or no results. Each target audience has a different relationship to each different disease condition that ties to culture, healthcare access, and experience, and other life experiences that may be distinct from other audience groups. All you have to do is take one more step to find the right or best resource rather than to just check the box. It’s like training account managers to ask what is the one more question you could have asked to make sure we got the business.

5. Imagery, especially photography, is a common representation fail point. Marketers still blatantly use plenty of stereotypical stock photos. They don’t show ethnic diversity or body diversity. Moreover, some marketers only know the familiar outlets they’ve always gone to for stock photos. But there are new sources in the market now. For example, pocstock has stock images that represent people of color. There needs to be diversity in creative assets in order to get us to the final stages.

Instead of mixed race, people like to say “racially ambiguous” to imply they are considering diverse representation, but don’t want to be clear in their support of diversity. We recommend not using the term “racially ambiguous” to describe anyone; perhaps you mean a person of mixed race or you mean someone of a certain ethnicity, but in no way is that person ambiguous. It is best to describe people as their race and/or biracially honest identity.

Putting Bias Management in Play

Our mantra is DIG DEEPER. DO BETTER. DO MORE. It’s not a huge lift, but people hear the need for diversity and inclusivity and are either afraid of doing something wrong or they think it requires too much extra work. For most of us who want to deliver our best and most effective work with each marketing campaign and tool, bringing the most relevant perspectives of our target audience is fundamental to being a marketer.

In an industry that strives to be compassionate through its work and outcomes, we have learned that by doing it wrong we don’t get people the help they need. And that is not acceptable. After all, we are in healthcare to make lives better for people.

  • Gena Pemberton

    Gena Pemberton is Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at Omnicom Health Group. Gena develops and drives forward the diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy at OHG. She champions Healthy Inclusion at OHG’s network of agencies by attracting talent, training and development, and health equity initiatives.

  • Joseph Bailey

    Joseph Bailey is Executive Vice President, Head of Marketing & Partnerships at Omnicom Health Group. Joseph drives the value of OHG’s network of agencies to clients and employees. He has launched some of the most recognized global brands both in and outside of healthcare.


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