Tips for Inclusive Language in Advertising

As part of Pride Month 2020, Augurian team members Cassie Burke and Megan Upperman hosted two topics. In the second “Tips for Inclusive Language in Advertising” they cover what inclusive language is, why its important in life and in advertising, examples of words and phrases, steps you can take to improve the inclusivity of your language as well as links to resources for continued learning.



Cassie Burke: Hi, everyone, and welcome to Tips for Inclusive Language and Advertising, hosted by Cassie and Megan. There isn’t a green logo that you can’t see. No, there isn’t one, but it’s there imaginatively. Today, we’re here to speak with you all about inclusive language and advertising, but really, just inclusive language. We’re going to be talking about what inclusive language is, why it’s important in daily life, and then advertisements.

We’re going to walk through some examples of words and phrases that are inclusive. Then, we’re going to show you just 70 tips that you can keep in mind to improve the inclusivity of your language and also of your advertisements. Then, we’re also going to offer some discussion questions at the end and some resources that you can follow up on to continue learning.

The first thing that we wanted to cover is really defining what is inclusive language. This is sometimes called a discriminatory language, but really, before we get into that, we just wanted to align on a few key terms. Stereotyping and discriminating, these both really have to do with inclusive language. We wanted to just cover them. Stereotyping is presuming a range of things about people based on one or two of their personal characteristics like appearance, intelligence, personality or character, their gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, location, socioeconomic status, disability, or other things as well like additional criminal record.

Even when a remark or action based on a stereotype is not a conscious prejudice act or phrase, it can still be hurtful, and therefore, it can still cause harm or damage to that person. Then, discriminating. Discriminating against the people or a group of people means treating them less favorably than others and doing something that has a less favorable effect on someone because of those personal characteristics. There’s a bullet list there of those key things, but it doesn’t have to be limited to these key things.

That brings us to inclusive language. It’s really a language that’s free from words, phrases, or tones that reflect prejudiced, stereotyped, or discriminatory views on a particular group of people. It doesn’t intend to deliberately exclude people from being seen as part of that group, but that is often the effect that it has. Here’s another way to look at it. It’s the use of inclusive language is an important way to reflect on the diverse nature of society.

This non-discriminatory language avoids false assumptions about people and helps to promote these respectful relationships that we want in the people around us but also with the leads that we’re trying to nurture through our advertisements. When we commit to inclusive language, we are committing to an important attribute of modern diverse and inclusive society, and it helps everybody feel like they’re being included in what’s being said.

That’s really the cornerstone of this, is that you’re not leaving anybody out intentionally or unintentionally. Why does it matter? Here are a few stats. 90% of consumers believe that businesses have a responsibility to look beyond profit and improve the state of the world. In tandem with that, 40% of the 75 million millennials in the US identify as African American, Hispanic, or Asian. Those are just a few identities, but they make up a very large portion.

If we are not keeping them in mind in our language, then we’re losing out on a lot of opportunity. Also, we’re alienating a lot of people which is unfair. Language matters. It’s our main form of communication. It plays a powerful role in contributing to discrimination and also eliminating it. Language is very important in our advertisements. It’s important when we speak to children because it shapes their view on the world.

The words and phrases that we hear over and over again, conscious or subconscious, does have an impact on the way that we view the world, and so does stereotyping. Even positive stereotyping like suggesting that a particular race, gender, or age group are gifted in a particular area can be damaging because it oversimplifies their individual characteristics. It ignores the diversity between those groups.

It also ignores the fact that those people have different experiences from other people as well. We wanted to walk through some examples of inclusive language. These are just common keyphrases and things to help getting you in the mindset of what we’re talking about here. Before we get into that, one of the obvious ones– it’s a little blurry at the bottom there. I’m not sure why.

Really, one of the obvious ones that will probably be most apparent and you’re most familiar with is the awareness of language that excludes people on the basis of gender. We know that past generations were taught to use he as a default for a person in the latter half of the 20th century. That changed to he or she, and now, it’s more like avoiding gender at all or being aware of the fact that there is a spectrum of gender identities and gender expression.

The definition of inclusive language goes beyond gender. We’re going to be looking at some other things. Just starting with gender, it’s man versus the environment. We’ve heard that phrase before. What is a better alternative? Humans versus the environment. It seems obvious, but really, it’s important. It’s straightforward. It’s an easy shift to make. Simply changing one word for another is more encompassing of the inclusive and exclusive language. Waiter versus waitress, we’ve probably heard this one before.

Server is better because it’s needless to gender a job. It’s unnecessary, it’s cumbersome. It’s just not important. A police officer, a carrier chair, describe their work, not their gender, and be intentional with what you’re saying. Mom or dad, when you’re saying like tell your mom or dad this, it’s better just to say parent, guardian, or caregiver. You don’t necessarily know what that person’s situation is, and we know that families are quite different these days.

The family structure can include grandparents. It can include same-sex parents. It can include foster parents. Saying things like we are all immigrants. That’s not very inclusive because it would be much better to just acknowledge that this country comes from people from diverse backgrounds, heritages, and experiences because that’s really what you’re trying to say. The truth is, we’re not all immigrants.

Indigenous people didn’t immigrate. Some people were forced to come to this country or to other countries. They didn’t immigrate there. When you’re addressing classroom, saying, “Okay, boys and girls, gather your things.” It’s really better just to say folks or everyone or children because even as children, like I said, our language shapes their reality. It’s better really just to avoid the use of the binary and include everybody in the class.

When we’re talking about the elderly, it’s better to say– just be intentful with what you’re trying to describe about that group of people. Are you talking about people who are having trouble walking a short distance or people with dementia? Being old isn’t a singular identity. Focusing on the need, it seems that people of all that age group is all that described, and that’s not necessarily true. That’s it.

This brings us to one of the last ones here, autistic person or person with autism. What do you do in this kind of situation? The truth is, everybody has their own preferences. The only hard and fast rule about using inclusive language is that it’s best to keep an open mind and ask the person about their individual preference. Why is that? Because saying person with autism, this is called person-first language.

It was adopted to honor individuals as being more than the other in language that describes one of the identities that belong to them such as disability or gender orientation. It was considered dehumanizing to put the identity first as it was seen as a ratio of the individual. In other times, some people have now decided that they actually do prefer to be called an autistic person because that helps them reclaim that identity as self-describing it as belonging to that particular group.

Some people would be offended to be called an autistic person because they would rather be seen as a person with autism. The truth is, it really just comes down to what they prefer. It’s not really up to you to decide what they prefer for them. Just going a little bit further into that, here are just a few more ideas. Different identities. The other ones didn’t really cover people struggling with addiction.

Here are some terms. Rather than saying addicts, you could say someone is struggling with addiction rather than saying substance abuse. To be more specific, you can say substance use disorder or people living with substance use disorder. Instead of saying something like jargon like on the wagon, you could say in recovery because it’s a little bit more respectful. Here are some more options. drug lord. that’s probably not something that should be said.

It’s really much better just to be specific and say, “This is a person who was arrested for selling drugs. They are not just a drug lord. That’s not their identity. Some more things, we’ve heard a lot of things people lately not suffers or victims but more like survivors. Here are some more options. You can see a lot of these are really things specific about what you’re trying to say, and also, in a lot of these situations, putting the people first.

The truth is, inclusive language isn’t just about standing on top of the hot button liberal phrases and what is politically correct to say right now. It’s really just about keeping these seven tips in mind. I think that you’ll find that not only do these tips really relate to inclusive language, but when we’re writing advertisements, these are really the things that we should be considering anyway.

We should be intentional with our advertisements, we should be considering the tone and the context, and we should be embracing representation and avoiding appropriation in it. When we make a mistake in one of our advertisements, we should know how to apologize. We’re going to be covering that. Is there anything that you would like to add, Megan, before we go into any of these?

Megan: No, nothing from me to add just yet.

Cassie: Cool. Awesome. We’ll just go into them. The first one– Oh, sorry. Do you have a question, Austin?

Austin Voigt: I was wondering if you wanted us to save questions for the end or just submit them through chat when we have questions.

Megan: Oh, submitting them through a chat is probably a great idea because we can probably get to them at the end, but if you put them in the chat, then we’ll have a queue ready to go.

Cassie: Yes, that’s a great idea. Cool. The first one, consider your tone. Tone, what is that? It’s the style, the characteristic, or the sentiment of a piece of content, usually when people are turned off or offended by a piece of content, but they don’t know exactly why. It’s because of tone. When you are approaching advertisements or even when you’re just addressing a group of people in a room, consider the intended subject, topic, message, and the overall impact of the piece in the planning stages to help reach the right and respectful tone.

Inclusive language in advertisements, it’s really just about identifying what your goals are and making sure that you’re focused on those goals and that you’re aware of them.

On that note, remove unnecessary jargon, slang, idiomatic expressions, and colloquialisms. These things can exclude people who might not have that specialized knowledge of that particular subject, and it might impede effective communication as a result.

For really important messages, don’t try and be too cool. Also, a lot of idioms don’t translate well from country to country. A lot of them are rooted in negative connotations and stereotypes. Things like hold down the floor, call a spade a spade. There are a lot more. I was going to include a lift, but of all the lists that they are coming up with, we’re really talking about a lot of native American phrases. Those ones are usually pretty obvious that they are rooted in bad history.

The second tip is be intentional. Language is the words, phrases, symbols, and metaphors that we use to describe something. There is a huge power in language. It can deepen understanding, strengthen relationships, or can confuse and cause harm to people. Consider or scrutinize every single word, symbol, or phrase. That’s another thing that’s really important in the advertisements, is to make sure that you’re being really– if it fits with your character count, but also, pay attention to how they’re placed.

Only mention characteristics like gender, sexual orientation, religion, racial group, or ability when it’s directly relevant to the conversation. Then, when we’re speaking about disability, avoid phrases that suggest victimhood such as afflicted by, victim of, suffers from, confined to a wheelchair, and try to steer clear of euphemisms like challenged, differently-abled or specially-abled. Try and put the people first.

I know we mentioned earlier that there’s people first or the other way around, identity first, and the truth is, some people will prefer to have identity first, but I think people first is usually a safe bet. Instead of blind man or a female engineer, use a man who is blind or a woman on our engineering team. Make sure that the individual is the most essential element.

There’s more to us than just the labels that we choose. Here are just some terms you can come back and look through these. Instead of saying things like is brain damage or the blind, you could say has traumatic brain injury or people who are blind. Obviously, there are some things in the negative terms column that I think we all know is not okay to say anymore or probably ever was. The third tip is embrace representation.

That is the visible presence of a variety of identities in a story, image, video, and other things. We know just like there’s a lot of power in language, there’s also a lot of power in representation. People want to see themselves in the media. They want to feel included, empowered, inspired, and heard. Before you’re publishing an ad, ask how it reflects actual society.

Are you elevating diverse voices? Make sure that you don’t underplay the impact of disabilities or a variety of identities, and make sure that you’re aiming for a balance of gender-coded words or leave them out altogether. I have a couple of links here, masculine-coded words and feminine-coded words. Both links take you to the same page, and it’s just a list of words in job advertisements that have been found to be coded one way or another, and that has had negative effects on people’s abilities to hire certain genders.

This is really a big topic when it comes to the job searches as well. The fourth one is, think about context. Context is the circumstances that inform an event or a piece of content. Think about the historical or cultural influences and the order and hierarchy of the subjects. One of the examples that Salesforce included when they were talking about this was that they noticed that the stock footage images that they had in their library of CEOs were all men leaning over women showing them how to do something.

They realized that that wasn’t very good contextually and they had to change that. That leads into stereotyping as well which we’ll cover in a moment. The fifth tip is avoid appropriation. That’s often defined as taking or using an aspect from a minority culture without knowing or honoring the meaning behind it. You can lead with cultural respect and awareness by being mindful of nuance and historical context, honoring and learning the culture, seeking guidance and diverse opinions, evaluating intent and impact, and elevating authentic voices.

Sixth step, counter stereotype. Going back to what I said a moment ago about images of CEOs only including men, challenge what it means to look like people in these different situations. Counter the stereotypes. Go against the standardized image that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudice, attitude, or an uncritical judgment.

A lot of times, when we’re in the position to counter stereotypes, we almost sometimes feel like we’re doing– At least me in the past, I felt like I was doing not something wrong but something like I shouldn’t be doing it by including a woman in this picture of a police officer or something, but it’s really important to remember that not only is it the right thing to do, but we should be doing it as often as we can. This is one of the really cool powers that we have as marketers, is to change the way that the world looks.

Then, the seventh tip is knowing to apologize and how to apologize. We’re not always going to be perfect. One of the most important things is to remember that when we don’t use inclusive language, our language is discriminatory, and that results in microaggression, remarks, questions, or actions that are painful to others because they have to deal with the person’s membership in a group that is discriminated against or subject to stereotypes.

These are usually unconscious expressions. They’re casual. They come out as really innocuous questions or actions by people who might be well-intentioned but they still have usually a negative impact. When we realized that we’ve said something that was discriminatory, or when we see the impact of what something you said was even if it didn’t match the intent that we wanted, we need to know when to apologize and how to do that. Here are some tips. The first thing, say sorry as fast as you can.

A great way to apologize is just saying, “I just heard what I said. I apologize.” Don’t say, “Sorry, I offended you,” or, “Sorry, I offended you, but that wasn’t my intent” because intent doesn’t matter, it’s impact. Don’t say, “Sorry, it was just a joke,” because the truth is, it’s not about making the other person feel bad that they are offended about taking ownership. The third step of apologizing is to recognize your implicit bias, and be really specific about it, own it.

It’s hard to own that, but I think that is what makes an apology really good, saying, “Sorry for what I said. It was out of line. It was based on a false impression.” Be specific about what that impression was and make sure that they know that you are sincerely sorry, and then don’t dwell on it. Just move on. Nobody wants to dwell on it, but don’t move on so much that you don’t keep educating yourself.

Make sure that you keep learning. You’ll find that you don’t make these mistakes as often, and you’ll be helping everybody else around you. That brings me to the end. We have some questions here to chat about, but I would like to offer Megan the chance to add anything that she’d like to add, or we’d segue into that.

Megan: Sure. My only thing that I want to add, Cassie, if you want to flip back just one slide.

First, I want to open it up that microaggressions are difficult. They can be confusing. It’s something that happens really, really often but shouldn’t downplay like the seriousness of what that feels like over time as they add up. If anyone ever wants to talk about it or has questions about it or bring anything to my attention, please feel free to reach out.

I’m always game to have coffee and chat literally about it, but basically, at the end of the day, the one message that I want to leave you with about these tips here is, it really comes down to one thing: try to do the right thing as often as you can, try not to make assumptions about people, and try not to make them feel like a burden for living outside of these regular stereotypes.

If a person has a different pronoun that they prefer, if you ended up committing a microaggression or two overtime maybe with the same person, part of making them not feel like a burden is not dragging yourself through the mud too hard either. Like this says, don’t dwell on it. Move forward, do the work to educate yourself, and recognize where that bias went, but there’s no need to tar and feather each other in the town square because that makes everybody feel like it’s a big burden, and what we don’t want to do is make anyone feel like their identity or their perception in the world is burdensome on people generally. That’s really all I had to add on that one.

Cassie: That’s really good. That’s a really good point to add.

Megan: Cassie, do you have anything you want to say before we close it out?

Cassie: No, ended it perfect.

Megan: Killer. Okay, everyone gets two minutes of their life back, enjoy it, and I’m sure we will all talk again soon.

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