It is always encouraging to see big corporate brands using their significant advertising platform to champion a cause. When that cause is one that is also important to you, it changes from being merely encouraging, to being personally heart-warming.
One such ad campaign was Castle Lager’s recent #SmashTheLabel campaign. In the television ad that promotes their campaign, Castle features a number of so-called stereotypical people, among them a gay man. Each character introduces themself by referring to the terms typically used to describe them, based on their appearance, interests or hobbies, after which they declare that they are “more than that”.
The gay man says, “You call me stabane (a derogatory term for gay people). I’m more than that,” as a mirror ball brilliantly explodes on the screen.
The message of this campaign is abundantly clear: stereotypical labels do not encompass all that a person is or is not – smash the labels.
Psychology’s take on labelling shows us that the words we use to describe people, things and experiences matter because they come to define our perception of these things. Even if it’s useful to have terms like “deceitful”, “dangerous”, “friendly” or “good”, studies have shown the way in which our description of something may impact the impression we have of it.
Cognitive psychologist, Lera Boroditsky and her colleagues ran an experiment, during which English and Russian speakers were asked to distinguish between two shades of blue that subtly differed from another. The English language has only one word to describe the colour blue, while Russians divide blues into hues that are darker (“siniy” is the Russian word for darker shades of blue) and hues that are lighter (“goluboy” is the Russian word for lighter shades of blue). When the two shades were quite similar, Russian speakers could more easily distinguish the two blues from one another than their English-speaking counterparts, who could only distinguish one lumped-together colour category: blue.
Similarly, a later study at Stanford University had participants view pictures of a man who could be perceived as racially ambiguous, with the possibility of easily being labelled as either black or white. Not surprisingly, half of the students who participated in the study described the man as being white, while the other half described him as black. When they were asked to draw a picture of the man they saw, the students who believed that race is an entrenched human characteristic tended to draw stereotypical features associated with particular racial groups.
The weight of the words we use to describe others includes our view of the perceived characteristics of people that hold a certain economic status, too.
A classic study by Paget Gross and John Darley showed a distinct difference between the perceived academic ability of a young girl who was described as coming from either a poor background or one that is more affluent. After observing a video of the girl responding inconsistently to a series of achievement-test questions, sometimes answering difficult questions correctly, but simpler questions incorrectly, participants consistently labelled her academic performance in line with their idea of what the academic abilities of a “poor” or a “rich” child would be – despite not really being able to gauge academic ability from the answers she gave in the video.
Okay, so our perception of someone, based on the way they are described, may have an impact on the way we see them, but can it influence the way we treat them?
The long-term influences that our perceptions have in real life are startling. When Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson told teachers at an elementary school that a few of their students had scored in the top 20% of a test that was designed to identify students who were set to enter a period of great intellectual development over the following year, the teachers took it seriously – this, despite the fact that the students who were identified as “academic bloomers” were, in reality, not intellectually superior to their peers, and performed very similarly to them in a genuine academic test.
However, when Rosenthal and Jacobson returned to the school one year later and administered the same academic test, they were astonished to see that the so-called “bloomers” had, indeed, outperformed their peers that were not selected by 10 to 15 IQ points. The results suggest that the teachers fostered the intellectual development of the students they believed needed it. These students, who were no different from their peers a year before, had suddenly become stronger academically, even if there was no basis to suggest that this would happen.
Back to Castle and #SmashTheLabel. Of course, it pays to show support to the LGBTQI+ community, and visibility is an all-important part of furthering any cause and normalising behaviour that is nothing but normal – albeit often demonised by fringe conservative groups.
We are all biased in some way, whether we’d like to admit it, or not. But the science proves that this campaign, like a number of others, is doing a lot more for unity, equality and solidarity than we might think by breaking down stereotypes and all the baggage that comes with them.