marketing & design

Marketing, Diversity, Inclusion, Me and You

By Brian James Rawson /
April 18, 2022
Photo of Owl Street Studio founder, Brian James RawsonPhoto of Owl Street Studio founder, Brian James Rawson

I don’t know about you, but, for me, it feels like the terms “Diversity” and “Inclusion” have morphed from two of our culture’s most aspirational ideals into two of our culture’s most overused buzzwords.

And this sliding of the profound to the profane, of the inspirational to the jargon-filled hits me right smack in the middle of my personal and my professional life. It hits right at the cross-section of my personal politics, beliefs, and faith. And it hits right in the center of my business, expertise, and livelihood.

Before going any further, I have to be upfront with you. This article is a little different than our normal content here at Owl Street Studio. Where we normally make more instructional content, this article is pretty much a straight-up op-ed and personal essay.

If that’s not your jam, no worries, I get it, and feel free to skip this one.

But if personal thoughts and stories are your jam, then you’re in the right place, and let’s read on.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

I’m in a weird spot. First, I’m not inherently different or special compared to anyone else. I’m just in a unique industry. Second, I’m a comic book nerd (a term I wear with pride). And as a marketer, as someone who’s whole job is to understand people and their driving needs and motivations in order to influence them, there’s a question from the classic comic book, The Watchmen, that I’m constantly thinking about.  

The question from that comic that crosses my mind everyday, especially at work, is: “Who watches the watchmen?”.

Who checks the influencer? Who holds the image maker accountable? Who? Who makes sure that advertisements, branding, visuals and messaging reflects the true diversity of our culture? Who makes sure that marketing includes everyone and doesn't neglect or overlook anyone?

You? Do you call out the auto insurance commercial for their lack of diversity? Do you address the monolith representation throughout your company’s employee handbook? Do you even notice the stereotype-upholding messaging in those sneaky Google Ads that follow you around the internet?

To be fair, we haven’t met, so you might really do all of those things (and maybe even more). But, I mean this in the best way, you shouldn’t have too. Holding marketers accountable shouldn’t be your job. You’ve already got a job. Marketers should be holding themselves accountable. I should be watching myself.

Great Power, Great Responsibility

As a marketer, I hold great power (not in a megalomaniac sorta way or a nuclear launch code sorta way…[I least I don’t think so?]). But all marketers (including me) do hold the power to influence a person’s emotions and decisions.

And with that, another comic book phrase crosses my mind everyday at work, “With great power there must also come – great responsibility."

I believe that all marketers have a great power, a great influence and thus a great responsibility. I also believe that influence, all by itself, is inherently amoral and neutral and that it’s the holder who shapes that influence into something morally right or morally wrong.

It’s the marketer’s job, their responsibility, to use their influence to help dismantle oppressive stereotypes, images, and messages. Likewise, marketers (including me) should be held accountable for not helping break down these oppressive stereotypes, images, and messages or (even worse) for helping prop-up and strengthen, either intentionally or incidentally, these oppressive stereotypes, images, and messages.

Marketers should be held responsible for not showing diversity and inclusion; and marketers should hold themselves to a higher standard of showing diversity and inclusion.

Riddle Me This

But even when marketers try to be responsible, if they’re not careful, they can fall into a trap.

Riddle me this: What do marketers love more than high click-through rates? Buzzwords. And when diversity and inclusion morph into buzzwords, marketers too often fall into the buzzword trap.

Too often, in chasing a buzzword, marketers fall into the trap of taking all the buzz out of the very thing they're chasing. And when this happens with diversity and inclusion, it too often results in morphing those ideals into tokenizing and patronizing.

Yes, the buzzwords may make marketing look more diverse than before, but that diversity may feel shallow and superficial. Yes, the buzzwords open advertisements and messaging to include more people, but that inclusion may feel flattening and one-note.

And when you are a member of a marginalized group, the unintended effects of the buzzword trap can make you feel like everything is “two-steps forward, one-step back.” Or at least it does for me.

As someone with a major learning disability, as someone who is nero-divergent, as someone who’s an orphan, and as someone who’s survived extreme poverty and extreme domestic abuse as a child, adolescent, and adult; I know what it’s like to be reduced to a token character; to be placed under other people’s assumptions, stereotypes, and narratives; and to be misrepresented (or not represented at all).

A Citizen of Kansas and Krypton

This is where diversity and inclusion hit right in the middle of my personal and my professional life.

On the professional side, I am in a position where my work can be part of the solution, and, at the same time, I’m in a position where, without constant accountability and self-reflection, my work can drift into being part of the problem.  

And on the personal side, I’m fully aware that, despite my background, brain-type, and lived-experience, my gender experssion, ethicnic presentation, and able-bodiness allows me the privilege to move through the world and enter most spaces without facing discrimination. Yet, though I can enter many spaces, I struggle feeling I belong in any of those spaces because of my background, brain-type, and lived-experience.

And, though, from the outside, it may look like I personally receive so much inclusion and representation. I can tell you, I don’t. Many things I’ve experienced are simply too complicated, too somber, and too hard to look at for mass audiences. And yet, on the other hand (and to be fair), in many ways I do receive much more inclusion and representation in our culture than other people.

The Justice League

And it’s actually this tenison, this paradox, this push-pull that drives me and my work.

On one side of the push, I can empathize with under-represented people because I’m one of those people too. And on the other side of the pull, as a cis, hetro, white male, I can enter into many spaces of influence because I am highly represented and included.

This push-pull drives me because I really do try to live by the Golden Rule of doing for others what I wish someone would have done for me. I wish individuals, people, and social systems would have helped me more through the many things that I’ve gone through in my life.

So, now, I try to use my work to give people the help that I never got. I try to use my work to help people feel included and seen in ways I never have. And I try to use my work to dismantle biases, discrimination, and sterotypes and in turn to dismantle oppressive social systems - systems that oppress orphans, immigrants, miniorites, classes, nero-typical and nero-divergent alike.

It’s the intersectionality of social justice and the intersectionality of my personal and professional life where diversity and inclusion comes in for me.

And I bet, diversity and inclusion comes in at the same place for you.

No matter your background and lived-experience, all of us hold our own unique intersection of privilege and oppression, of hardship and abundance, and of personal life and professional life.

No matter what you do for work, all of us have a sphere of influence with what we do.

And, no matter how compartmentalized you can get, everyone’s lived-experience informs their work, their decisions, their habits, their beliefs, and their future.

And, not trying to be too preachy or motivational speaker-y, I believe that all of us can use our work (no matter what that work is) to help others; that all of us can use our influence to help promote diversity and inclusion; and that all of us can (and should) hold the marketing images and messages all around us to the highest standard in promoting inclusion and representation.

Marketing, diversity, and inclusion affects me everyday, at home and at work. And, whether implicitly or explicitly, whether blatant or subtle; marketing, diversity, and inclusion affects you too.

Because, in truth, it affects all of us. And just as it affects all of us, building up diversity and inclusion also takes all of us, the whole, wide, weird, diverse lot of us.

In short, re-shaping marketing to be the most diverse and inclusive takes me, and it takes you.

Thanks for sticking around all the way through this more personal side of Owl Street Studio, and I wish you the very best.

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And if you need any help with your marketing, with building up diversity and inclusion, me and the rest of Owl Street Studio are always here to support you.

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