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Confirmation Bias: How Can You Avoid Tunnel Vision in Your Marketing?

Confirmation Bias: How Can You Avoid Tunnel Vision in Your Marketing?
Written by Elizabeth Chey

What is a confirmation bias? A confirmation bias is a tendency to seek out, process, evaluate, or rely on information that reinforces or confirms one’s own experiences or beliefs.

Most of the time, we aren’t even consciously aware that confirmation bias has occurred. When surfing the web, have you noticed, focused on, and given more credence to information that conforms to your world view?

When processing and evaluating information, behavioral scientists say we tend to rely too blindly on a mental reflex (or mental crutch) they call confirmation bias.

Some implications of confirmation bias can be:

  • An unwillingness to consider other points of view and their corresponding facts.
  • Seeking information and assigning it more value because it confirms our existing beliefs and ignoring what doesn’t fit into that view.
  • Our conclusions can be based on biased evidence that can possibly separate us further from reality.
  • Maintaining “confirmatory thought” vs. “exploratory thought” makes us susceptible to groupthink, because we rely on others like us to confirm our own beliefs. And we like to think we are right.

Behavioral scientists say we indulge confirmation bias because it works as a mental shortcut, intended to help us make decisions faster and more efficiently. Given the large, complex and diverse amounts of ideas circulating in our societies, processing and evaluating information quickly can be a boon, but unfortunately lends itself to this bias.

The usage of confirmation bias in marketing content creation.

The usage of confirmation bias in marketing content creation

How can we as marketing content creators better serve our audiences by helping them out of the tunnel vision created by confirmation bias? In delving into confirmation bias, this blog series aims to dive into the findings of different cognitive biases, so you as content creators can create nuanced marketing materials, based on evidence-based consumer psychology.

Admittedly, advertising campaigns subtly use confirmation bias as a tool to convince consumers they are part of an in-group, often playing off stereotypes and cliches to their advantage, or propping up the customers’ brand identity to a product.

Take, for example, these very broad brush statements about brands: Carhartt’s durable workwear appeals to construction workers. Apple’s iPad Pro is used by artists and designers.

Confirmation bias works to re-enforce our ideas about ourselves, often in a positive light.

But marketing that only acts to confirm our biases needs further investigation.

I confronted my own confirmation bias while reading through emails one day. A Citibank ad popped up on the side of my screen, and even though I ignore ads in Gmail, I couldn’t resist this intriguing line: “Now that you see me, you can meet the real me.”

The ad text offered very few words, placing importance on the photo of an African-American woman in a burgundy dress that accentuated her curves and complemented her complexion. She smiles, looking confidently into the camera with her warm, brown eyes.

“Now that you see me…” I read again. “You can meet the real me?” What was I not seeing?

The only other words on the ad read: “If you go by a first name other than the one on your eligible Citi-branded consumer credit card, follow the steps below to update your profile.”

It took me a few moments, but I began to see from a different perspective: Oh, this woman identifies as transgender. It hadn’t crossed my mind, the complications that arise from going by one name but having all your identification and verification documents listed in another name.

Citibank’s True Name Initiative, where transgender and non-binary customers are given the choice to have account profiles and credit cards that match who they are, shakes up our preconceived notions about a hassle-free trip to the bank. Research conducted by Mastercard showed that nearly a third of individuals who have shown forms of identification with names and genders that don’t match their presentation have reported having negative experiences, including harassment.

“Since introducing the True Name feature, we’ve received incredible feedback from our partners and allies within the transgender and non-binary communities on how the capability has eased a major pain point in their lives,” said Cheryl Guerin, EVP marketing & communications for Mastercard.

Sonny Oram, who founded Qwear Media, a modeling agency that advocates for LBGTQIA+ visibility, says the risk of being outed at the bank draw unwanted attention.

“We are sometimes denied access to our accounts and people don’t believe we are who we say we are. If you’re forced to say your birth name out loud and someone overhears you, they could follow you, and attack you. In particular, trans women of color face this sadly all the time.”

I asked Oram to view Citibank’s ad campaign, so we could learn some interesting things from the approaches in this marketing campaign. What’s fascinating to me as a cisgender audience member is that the ad highlights an oft unseen subset of consumers and nudges the rest of us to see from their perspective with thoughtful and skillful considerations. [Note: cisgender refers to someone whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth.]

Deconstructing confirmation bias and implicit bias in a Citibank ad

In this Citibank video, entitled “The List”, the camera opens tightly on a couple in a car, driving through a tree-shaded street, where sunlight forms a play of shadows and light on their faces.

What I saw: The gender identities of the two people are ambiguous to me. It takes me a few moments to see it.

What Sonny saw: “When I saw that ad, I immediately knew it was for me. They used coded language that trans people would pick up on right away. The image they used was someone cis people wouldn’t recognize as trans, but trans people tend to recognize one another.”

Both Sonny and I agreed that the ambiguity is intentional. The intentional ambiguity warms up the cisgender audience for the twist in the storyline, while trans and non-binary folks see themselves from the inside, and have already been won over by the recognition.

A few more seconds into the ad, the couple explores possible names, as couples anticipating a baby might try out different names and how those names sound when said out loud. (Still more ambiguity, but this moves the plot forward. We are curious why two people, where neither one looks pregnant, are trying out names.)

Placed in everyday settings, the couple is depicted doing what everyone else does: cleaning the kitchen; walking in the park, holding hands; one partner talks on the phone with their mom while the other partner listens. By incorporating transgender people in everyday situations, there is an unspoken acceptance within the ad’s story that rings true and authentic. It contradicts stereotypes of transgender people being outcasts and outliers.

As a mixed-race couple, the couple’s attire reflects their gender-biases, similar to how cisgender couples are depicted. The trans/non-binary person who identifies as more male is not depicted as extremely masculine, which is a common stereotype.

The details in clothing, in the chosen activities, in the dialogue help a cisgender audience assimilate LGBTQ+ community and family members into our ideas of cultural norms, depicting them as actors in a multicultural society where diversity is accepted.

The effect for CitiBank is that not only have they garnered praise from a subset of their customers, but they’ve also pulled in cisgender audience members whose values of diversity and inclusion are reflected in the ad campaign.

Because nothing is over-simplified, the nuance works. (To see more best practices for LGBTQ Marketing and Advertising, you can see what the Commercial Closet Association recommends.)

How preference algorithms feed confirmation bias...

How preference algorithms feed confirmation bias

As I was analyzing the merits of this marketing campaign, I caught myself again in the confirmation bias loop:

  • That ad that popped up near my email, how did Gmail or Citibank know I would click on it?
  • How did they know to put it there in the first place? Had Google’s algorithms predicted what information to show me, based on past content I’d searched?
  • Had they already known this content would confirm my own beliefs and make me less critical of the content?
  • Would people who hold anti-trans beliefs and biases have even seen this ad in their feeds and information streams?

While writing about and examining confirmation bias, I fell into the “filter bubble effect.” This is yet another way platforms using preferences algorithms encourage confirmation bias. By using information gathered from my internet searches and online research, these platforms curate information, effectively putting me in a bubble of my own making, feeding me information that already conforms to what they think is my “world view.”

7 tips for content creators to check for confirmation bias

To the writer or marketing content creator, we can attempt to diminish the effects of confirmation bias, and help customers avoid self-perpetuating bubbles.

Try these lines of inquiry when developing your marketing content:

  1. In the initial stages of market research, can I start with as many neutral facts as possible? Maybe this means hiring one or more third parties to gather facts to form a more objective body of information.
  2. Can I emphasize with others, especially in different audience segmentations who purchase my product? Try looking at more details within specific demographics, say intersectional subsets of your customer base.
  3. Can I listen openly to the opinions of others, especially those with differing views? Have you built a diverse creative team and fostered an open culture where the team can work through their own implicit biases, ensuring that those ideas are carefully examined, especially if those ideas bleed into the ad campaigns your company works on?
  4. Am I taking in all my evidence from a curated information stream that confirms what I already believe? Recognizing that this is what platforms do, and that confirmation bias is ever-present can make you more vigilant and aware, reducing the further entrenchment into your own views. Break out of your own bubbles. Read information from more sources, especially seeking out fact-based sources that might contradict your own views.
  5. Am I exposing myself to people with varying life experiences unlike my own, so that their views can make their way into my work? Often delving into what makes us uncomfortable can actually open us up in seeing confirmation bias, and setting a plan to work through it.
  6. Am I hiring artists, photographers, and designers who reflect the people in my ad campaigns so they lend authenticity to marketing materials and provide comfort to diverse people working on-set?
  7. Am I giving everything I read the critical reflection it deserves, before developing a marketing campaign that might perpetuate my own beliefs?

These lines of inquiry don’t have to be limited to the marketing content you create, but the responsibility we have been given to shape other people’s world view should not be taken lightly.

How can we as #marketing content creators better serve our audiences by helping them out of the tunnel vision created by #confirmationbias? Find out! Click To Tweet

About the author

Elizabeth Chey

Elizabeth Chey consults international, community-based, and small nonprofits on communications, advocacy, strategic planning and capacity building. Her passion for arts, peace building and development compels her to tell complex, intimate stories about people working for social justice. She earned her MFA from New York University and a Journalism degree from Northwestern.

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