The CEO of my favorite outfitter, Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), recently posted an open letter on the company’s website, with the heading: “Do white people dominate the outdoors?” He was apologizing for MEC’s decades of advertising that has used mostly white models—because it doesn’t represent “the diversity of our 5 million members or of Canadians.” He implied that “white” advertising doesn’t provide role models or inspiration for people of color to engage in outdoor pursuits. Therefore, it is MEC’s responsibility to display more racial diversity in its ads.
What is wrong with such an apology?
Fundamentally, apologizing for lack of diversity in advertising (or in a company’s human resources) is wrong because it affirms the collectivist–false–idea that skin color, or race, matters. These are superficial characteristics akin to eye color or ear shape. Therefore, they are—and should be—irrelevant.
Another faulty premise underlying MEC’s apology is over-estimating the power of advertising. The CEO seems to think that “white” advertising discourages or even prevents people of color from participating in outdoor activities, by manipulating them to believe that the outdoors are not for them.
Let’s look at these false ideas more closely to see why companies should not apologize for their lack of racial diversity.
Racism is a type of collectivism that assumes that a person’s racial group determines his character and actions. But that is a mistaken assumption. Skin color or race does not determine the content of one’s character or conduct, as even the slightest observation of facts confirms. Regardless of their race, individual make different choices, for good or for evil.
I am not arguing that racism does not exist in business; it does. But racism is irrational and therefore unsustainable and destructive. A company that discriminates in its hiring decisions based on race will become uncompetitive, as it will miss many highly qualified applicants. The same is true of not selling to customers of “non-preferred” race, which artificially limits the company’s market share and growth potential. And advertising that does not appeal to customers incentivizes them to take their business elsewhere.
It is in MEC’s self-interest to hire best possible employees, regardless of race. Racial diversity among staff would develop naturally in racially diverse markets. Consumer research suggests that making advertising relatable to customers by showing models like them tends to boost sales. Therefore, it is MEC’s interest to do so. However, displaying racial diversity in ads is not a moral duty.
Despite contrary arguments, advertising does not have the power to coerce. It cannot make anyone buy products, nor can it coerce anyone to act in particular ways. Advertising is merely free speech (which entails freedom to display visual images). It does not constitute physical force—it can merely try to persuade its target audience. Such audiences have the choice to be persuaded or reject the advertising messages.
MEC’s advertisements do not have the power to coerce the people viewing them to either participate or not participate in outdoor pursuits, or to buy or not buy the outfitter’s products. People can—and do—make autonomous choices. MEC itself cites studies showing that the level of participation in outdoor activities to be higher among people of color than among whites.
Yet, in apologizing for the lack of diversity in its advertising, MEC’s CEO affirmed the wrong but culturally dominant ideas of collectivism and advertising as coercion. A doctoral researcher at the University of Toronto has called “white” advertising “visual apartheid,” as reported by the National Post.
Perhaps MEC wanted to score points with its members (customers) and employees, in a nod to the prevalent collectivist idea of identity politics. However, if a company wants to succeed in the long term, it cannot base its action on false, irrational ideas.
Rather than publicly apologize for its past “white” advertising, MEC should have merely recognized the fact of its diverse customers and employees and adjusted its advertising to appeal to its markets. Such advertising, and merit-based hiring, would be in the company’s rational self-interest (which entails satisfied customers and productive employees).
Instead of pandering to the irrational ideas of identity politics and advertising as coercion , self-interest and facts should be MEC’s–and every company’s–only guide to action.