Does Race Have a Place in Marketing? | Pros and cons of using traditional demographics | Jenn Wells Design

I recently read an article from ProPublica explaining why they “had to” buy racist ads. After my initial reaction, it ended up being a really eye-opening look at the marketing segmentation options on Facebook.

Did you know Facebook allows you to select custom audiences for ads and promoted posts? Makes sense – an ad for baby shower cupcakes isn’t going to be very effective if it’s sent to people who aren’t expecting. But the fact that these selectors include things like religion and ethnicity is a little disturbing.

I wracked my brain trying to think of any legitimate reason to target a product by race. Maybe sunscreen? While burning in the sun is a problem that primarily affects white people and lighter skin tones, we can all get skin cancer AND the survival rate of Melanoma is lower for black people, perhaps because minority patients are less likely to be diagnosed early on.

I don’t even necessarily think hair care should be targeted towards or against certain races. Plenty of people can tell you what “white people hair” or “black people hair” looks like, but you know what? That shea butter shampoo that’s basically like head lotion works just as well on my super fine, bodiless, dry hair as it does on thick, coarser strands.

And religion? What product or service could you possibly need to segment by religion? Non-kosher meats? Menorahs and Christmas trees? And who even puts their religious affiliation on Facebook???

Using myself as an example in this fake Christmas tree ad on Facebook:

  • Scenario 1) You set your target audience to Christians. I never see your ad and I don’t buy your Christmas tree even though I set up lights and a tree every year and my current fake tree is looking pretty shabby and we’re actively discussing a replacement.
  • Scenario 2) You set your target audience by interests: Christmas, Christmas trees, ornaments, pine trees, etc, etc. I see your ad because I recently posted a comment about our pathetic, tiny tree so Facebook’s stalkerish algorithms have pinpointed it as an interest of mine. I click and browse your selection.

So let’s get straight to the heart of the matter.

Does Race Have a Place in Marketing?

7 years ago I sat in my marketing class at Wilmington University. The instructor had just finished explaining what a demographic was and how to pick certain elements of various demographics to build your target audience.

A student asked, “Isn’t that racist?”

I rolled my eyes. Picking a target audience is based on a desire to, if not help people, at least optimize their experience by showing them things that apply to them. How could that be racist?

But you know what? Years later, I think that student was right and I was definitely too quick to brush off his concern.

Part of the problem is that we’re often not creative enough to beyond basic demographics when choosing who our target audience is. But demographics is one tiny slice of the possibilities available! You can target people by behaviors, attitude, or psychographics (which is like a little mix of everything). C2B Solutions breaks down the pros and cons of each of these approaches and you know what the strongest appeal is for demographics? How easy they are to collect and target.

In other words, the other approaches are more effective, but picking superficial qualities like age, gender, and race is easy. In my opinion, that’s not good enough – we can do better.

Issues with Using Traditional Demographics like Race

1. Even Positive Stereotypes are Depersonalizing

We think of racism as negative emotions: anger, hate, judgement, distrust, etc. But there are positive stereotypes like black people are good athletes, Asian people are smart, etc. And there was actually an interesting study done with that second example.

Quick summary, Asian students were put in situations where the (white) person they interacted with made an assumption based on their race that they would be good at something (math) and asked them to do math problems. The control group was asked to do math but not exposed to the positive stereotype. Their findings:

“Positive stereotypes did not make people feel good. When the white participant used a positive stereotype, the Asian participant liked them less and felt more depersonalized. The positive stereotype also made the participants angry. Statistically, the amount of depersonalization they felt explained the amount of dislike they felt for their partner.” (Psychology Today, The Pain of Positive Stereotypes)

Basically anything that strips away someone’s individuality is going to feel negative even if it’s a supposed positive comment. Which should be common sense, but sometimes we need reminding.

2. Race, Age, and Gender are Superficial Qualities

What is race? It’s a concept many of us struggle with, despite the wealth of perceptions and biases associated with it. According to my sociology class in college, race is a set of physical characteristics that a culture identifies as belong to that race. In other words, race is perception. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is based on your ancestry and genetics.

You and I might look at the same exact person and each mentally categorize them as a different race. And we could each be right. Because race has no real, tangible definition. It’s something we’ve constructed as a society.

So with that in mind, how can you possibly predict what an entire race is going to like or dislike? You can address the pain points of a minority, which are going to be things like prejudice, fewer opportunities, and so on. But is that really something you’d feel ethically comfortable with for toothpaste or jeans? And are people really going to appreciate you appropriating their cultural struggles for your marketing?

You can’t design something all women will like, or all middle-aged people, or all Latinos. But you can design something that will appeal to people who share common interests, behaviors, and motivations.

I’d argue that farmers as a collective group have a lot more in common than teenagers. You could say, “Oh, well teenagers all Snapchat, and emoji, and are angsty rebels.” Or… maybe teenagers are often slapped with that label. But if you want to build branding on it, don’t build it based on youth. Build a brand that feels energetic and irreverent and that breaks a few rules.

3. It’s Too Easy to Market Based on Biases Rather than Information

Ok, so you’ve found an exception to all these things I’ve been saying. You have a brand that really, really needs to be marketed towards white 20-something women. So how will you market it?

What do white girls like? Uggs! Starbucks! Leggings worn as pants!

But do they really? I’m well aware of the “white girl” memes and, frankly, I find them vaguely irritating. Uggs are, well, ugly. Starbucks is great, if pricy, but pumpkin spice is overrated. And I understand the appeal of leggings but my butt will always be firmly covered in public (unless I’m running because running in jeans is a terrible idea). I wouldn’t even glance twice at an ad with a group of white women in North Face jackets holding lattes because it’s bland and boring and doesn’t hit upon any of my deeper interests or motivations.

So am I the outlier you can safely ignore, or is the stereotype based on a small group of people? How will you know what that race/age group/gender likes if you don’t do some research?

I think we like to stick with traditional demographical information, because it’s easy. We think about women and automatically start making things “pretty.” Pink, teal, script fonts, and so on. But if your group of women is corporate, and has worked years to establish themselves in male-dominated fields, that might be insulting. Then again, it might be a refreshing change of pace.

Without doing some market research, you have no way of knowing which of your perceptions is shared by the larger portion of society and which are just you. You don’t have a way to double check that you’re not letting your personal biases run the show.


I’m not going to give a definitive no. I’m sure there are some very specific scenarios I might not have thought of that would prove to be an exception. There are definitely charities and nonprofits that work to correct some of the imbalances in our society and they can only do so by providing assistance and opportunities to specific demographic groups.

I’m also not a minority. I am a woman, so I know how I personally feel about networking groups that exclude men, or businesses that specifically target women. But I’m only one woman, and I don’t know how the majority of my gender feels about it.

So there’s definitely room for other opinions and thoughts on this topic. But I will say this, I don’t think Facebook needs to allow ads to target based on race or religion. I don’t see enough positive applications of that to make up for all the discrimination it allows. And if Facebook’s attempts to identify fake news stories are any indication, I don’t think their algorithms are anywhere close to preventing prejudiced advertising from continuing to occur.

And the majority of businesses not only do NOT need to use demographics, but will be more successful if they focus on other factors like behavior, motivation, and culture over race, gender, and age.

I would love to hear other opinions on this. Do you think traditional demographics have a place in marketing? Is there a way to use demographic information without relying on biases and stereotypes?