How to Reach Out to a Diverse Audience Without Being Offensive

In the world of marketing and communication, the words ‘diversity,’ ‘inclusion,’ and ‘representation’ are often thrown around and emphasized but in a very superficial manner. Specialists will look at a catalog or commercial and suggest to include more people of color, nontraditional gender roles, or different body types. While all of these things are important, it’s even more important to consider the context of this messaging and how it s actually received from the point of view of the target audience. So let’s talk about how we can communicate to diverse audiences without being offensive.

Redefining “Diverse”

Those who work in communications (especially those of us in higher education) often talk about being more welcoming to diverse. The problem is that there’s an underlying assumption that most people are working from the same definition. Its natural to think of diversity along EEOC non-discrimination lines: race, color, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, etc. However, I think a more useful approach is to consider point of view and experience, especially those of our audiences.

When we begin with point of view and experience, we can become more inclusive because it might supersede labels or the stereotypes that are often associated with broad demographics. Here are six tips on how to be more inclusive:

  1. Don’t Make Assumptions About People Based on Race, Gender, Age, Sex, or other labels.
    While it might be easier to market towards large demographic groups, don’t make communications, messaging, or products and services based on these stereotypes. However, this can detrimental in a number of ways. For example, I often experience what is referred to as the “model minority” myth, the idea that Asian Americans tend to be high achievers who perform well in education. In Oregon, this was especially prevalent – the data showed that Asians were doing better in K-12 than other racial groups, so resources and focus were spent elsewhere. But when the data was carefully reviewed, it showed that individual communities (such as Laos, Vietnamese, Burmese, etc.) within the “Asian American” label were struggling but not getting the attention needed because of this assumption.

  2. When in Doubt, Ask Questions.
    How do people identify themselves? How would they like to be addressed or viewed? These are simple questions but ones that are rarely asked by marketing professionals to their audiences. Rather than assuming a piece isn’t gender-inclusive or “feels diverse,” just ask. Get multiple points of view. Tackle diversity from an inclusive manner by actually having diverse opinions at the table. If your audience is diverse, the leadership – and certainly the communications arm – of your organization should certainly be too.

  3. Don’t Treat Diversity Outreach Like a Quota.
    When reviewing marketing materials or messaging, don’t treat members of your diverse audience like a quota. You don’t want things to seem forced. In fact, some companies have even used Photshop to simply inject people of color into their marketing materials. It’s a practice called “doctoring diversity.”
    For example, look at this original photo:

    Which was turned into this tour guide cover for the city of Toronto:

    It seems so absurd, it sounds like a story for The Onion. In fact, they were so inspired by companies doing this, released this article on the phenomenon.

  4. Use Multiple Channels to Reach Your Audience.
    If you have an event, product, or idea to promote, take advantage of multiple outreach tools and realize that no single communication channel will cover them all. There’s a large assumption that putting something on Facebook or Twitter will be a great way to reach your followers but the reality is that the average view rate is less than 12%. On top of that, people are distracted and might need to be able to see something a few times. Be aware of things like font size to meet ADA requirements, language (and the context of how things are translated), and even where you place print materials or send press releases. It seems obvious, but I’m helping a company right now who has over a million customers fix a massive problem because they failed to do this in advance right now.

  5. Avoid Stereotypes and Be Conscious of Labels.
    We assume that one marginalized group can help speak on behalf of the experienced of another. While this might be true in certain situations (such as socio-political action, social justice movements, disparity in services, etc.), it can often be lost in the world of marketing and communications.

    For example, look at this poster for Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho that was approved by multiple diversity groups, including the Intercultural Center at Cornell University:


    Many people don’t realize that the font used for her name is considered ‘Orientalist’ and offensive. In fact, this fake-brushstroke font is often used to connotate all things “Asian” or “Chinese,” especially when it comes to food. The font has a history of being paired with extremely stereotypical representations of Asians. If you’re interested in learning more about that, Jeff Yang covers it quite well in this Wall Street Journal piece: Is Your Font Racist?

  6. Treat Diversity as an Asset, not a Liability
    For many years, there was a movement that spread the idea of “love sees no color.” In fact, some people still use that to justify their approach, saying things like “I don’t see race, I just see people.” However, this is often extremely offensive to people who do identify themselves in that particular way. In other words, it’s not seeing others how they want to be seen, but rather how we feel more comfortable in approaching them. That’s just wrong.

    Yes. presenting authentic communications efforts when it comes to a diverse audience takes more work. It involves more research, more communications. If done right, it will always stretch you and teach you new experiences that others face. However, it will also make you a much more effective communicator and allow you to reach a diverse audience without being offensive.

Very few people intend on being offensive. Sometimes, they just want to be humorous or they believe are making a genuine attempt at making their communications more welcoming to diverse audiences. However, intent is only a small part of the process – it is the result that actually counts. Communication is ineffective when the intended recipient misunderstands your intention or message. It’s even worse when they’re actually being offended by what you’re doing. So take the extra time and you’ll be rewarded for your efforts!

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