FCB's Vita Harris on expanding terminology around biases

Find out why words like 'racist' or 'sexist' are often limiting.

Throughout her 30-year career in advertising, Vita Harris has examined and collected ads that have been pulled due to controversial or "racist" content. As a black woman, Harris said she wanted to share with her counterparts – "almost all who did not look like me" – why those ads were perceived in a certain way.

The global chief strategy officer of FCB, who shared her insights from years of observation and research on stage at The 3% Conference last week, said it comes down to several key factors, including terminology, intent and impact.

Harris shared the Heineken Light spot from last March, which was denounced as "racist" on social media and by news outlets. In the spot (below), a Heineken Light bottle is pushed down a long bar – sliding past a black woman and underneath the seats of black musicians – only to end up in the hand of a lighter-skinned female.

The intent of the ad, Harris said, was "pure." The objective was to compare the beer to lower calorie drink options, which is why the Heineken Light bottle is showcased next to a glass of wine at the end of the commercial. But the intent is where it went awry.

To figure out where the intent went wrong, Harris said FCB has figured out a way to have difficult conversations and explain emotions and perceptions using words like "racist" or "sexist."

When someone refers to another person’s work as "racist," it immediately shuts the conversation down, Harris explained, because the creator thinks he or she is being called racist, when that’s not always the case. FCB now uses terms it’s developed to better describe what’s going on in a controversial ad itself.

In the Heineken Light spot, Harris said the issue is "colorism," which his people of a darker hue being discriminated against because of their complexion.

"When you use the right terminology, it opens up conversation either internally or with clients," said Harris.

Some other terms FCB has landed on include tokenism, cultural appropriation, historical white-washing/blindness and more. The agency now has 13 terminologies it’s looking at, with more on the way. FCB then uses a process called 456 to help make its work even better.

The scale from 1 to 6 goes: Damaging, Invisible, Noticed, Provocative, Creates Behavior, Never Finished.

"We try to create work that falls within the 4, 5 or 6," said Harris, adding that 6 is work that provides brand-building, equity-creating ideas for a brand.

Harris ended her speech by telling the audience that FCB is happy to – and wants to – share its terminologies and 456 process with other agencies to help the entire industry create better work.

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