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Social proof and diversity

11 Jan 2016  |  Richard Shotton 
Social proof and diversity

The industry's current attempts to promote diversity might have the opposite effect, writes Richard Shotton.

One of the most pressing problems in agency staffing is lack of diversity. But could our attempt to remedy this - by publicising the relative lack of BAMEs in ad agencies - actually be exacerbating the problem? Perhaps we should try harder to apply what we know about human behaviour.

Beware negative social proof

The 'public outcry' approach to the lack of diversity taps into the bias of social proof. This is the idea that our behaviour, whether consciously or subconsciously, is strongly influenced by that of others.

Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology at Arizona State University, has shown that this is a particularly powerful influence on anti-social behaviour.

In one of his most well-known experiments, he explored the effect of social proof at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, which was being slowly eroded by the 3% of visitors who pilfered pieces of the beautiful rock-like wood. Cialdini created signs highlighting the scale of the problem: 'Please don't take wood because the park is being changed by the many visitors who steal'.

This message led to a near tripling of theft. A full 8% of visitors pocketed a piece of wood. By publicising the scale of the problem he had lessened the sense of crime: surely it couldn't be that bad if everyone was at it?

This experiment, and many others like it, suggests that publicising the number of agencies that don't have a diverse work-force could be making the situation worse.

Highlighting the positive

The opposite approach could work: rather than emphasise the problem, we should stress the positive.

And there is good news to report. ZenithOptimedia ran an experiment that suggests discrimination in agencies is lower than in other industries.

We created a series of fake graduate CVs and cover letters, complete with strong academic results from prestigious universities and relevant work experience. We then made two versions of each CV: one with a white-British sounding name (such as Daniel), and the other with an Asian-sounding name (such as Danesh). There was no difference between the CVs bar the name.

We sent out 294 job applications to 40 of the top media and creative agencies across the country, with half receiving a CV with a white British sounding name and half an Asian-sounding one.

The headline results were encouraging. Daniel and Danesh both received a response to 23% of their applications and they both received similar number of interview offers: 7.4% for Daniel and 6.9% for Danesh - a 7% difference.

Whilst there is clearly some discrepancy, other industries fare far worse. In 2009, the Department for Work and Pensions published results from an undercover CV study in which job applications were sent across nine occupations, including accountancy, IT, care work and sales. The CVs featured names from three ethnicities, but in qualifications and experience the applicants were matched.

The results were shocking. Those who appeared to be white sent out nine applications before receiving a positive response: BME candidates had to send 16 - that's a 78% difference.

Harnessing social proof

Whilst we a far from perfect, advertising appears less discriminatory than other industries, and if we are to further improve we should stress the positive. This is not the same as ignoring the problem. Rather, it means highlighting the agencies with a high level of diversity or tangible measures in place to address the issue.

Stressing these stories will harness social proof to eliminate the issue, not exacerbate it.


Richard Shotton is head of insight at ZenithOptimedia

Twitter: @rshotton

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