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Tired of tone-deaf ads that are missing the mark? Empathy is the answer.

Michael Ventura of Sub Rosa takes aim at a key cause of tone-deaf ads: lack of empathy. / Oscar Keys via Unsplash

Tone-deaf.

Out of touch.

Oblivious.

These are just a few of the ways we describe the cringe-worthy things that spill out of brands and agencies when they grossly miss their mark. Moments like when —

Kendall Jenner walked through a protest with her peacemaking Pepsi.

Dove lotion turned a black woman into a white woman.

Zuckerberg used Facebook Spaces VR to virtually tour hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

These examples, and many more like them, have encouraged us en masse to share our favorite facepalm emojis and hashtag snark to relay our dismay at what these top brands just ushered into the world. But perhaps it's time to do something more serious. Something truly perspective shifting.

Empathy is a word that often gets misused. It doesn’t mean being nice or compassionate, though it does often lead to us acting in these ways. At its simplest, empathy is about perspective-taking as a means to greater understanding. It’s not a “gift” that some people have and others don’t. Sure, some of us have more of a natural tendency to think or act with empathy, but it’s universal and something we can all access and ultimately improve with the right dedication and practice.

Over the past several years, my team and I have developed a series of archetypes used to help train different forms of empathy that can be used to lead more effectively and to solve problems more holistically. We call this Applied Empathy—because empathy unto itself is passive. We can “understand” all day and do nothing with that understanding, but that’s a waste. It’s time for us to use our understanding to inform our actions. It’s time for perspective-taking to become a critical part of our process and our work.

Take a moment to consider these various archetypes and their corresponding behaviors. When reading them, ask yourself which ones you identify with, and which seem less comfortable.

The alchemist is an experimenter who prototypes and tests their ideas regularly. This style of work helps the alchemist to understand the nuances of their work.

Seekers are daring and unafraid to take risks or pivot—gaining new perspective from their fearless want to explore and expand.

Conveners host. They understand the value an environment plays in creating the circumstances for perspective-taking and are expert at establishing the setting from which empathy can emerge.

The sage values presence and makes the effort to remain in the now when working with colleagues, placing the past and the future aside in exchange for connection in the current moment.

Cultivators see the long game. They are “big-picture” people who can look out onto the horizon and know where we’re going. They use this perspective to help others align and orient their actions appropriately.

An inquirer is a deep question asker. They know how to probe past the superficial and get to the heart of a matter. They gain perspective through inquiry.

The confidant listens. They have the patience to truly hear what others have to say and are undistracted by a desire to control the conversation. Their listening leads them to connection and understanding.

So which one(s) speak to you? Those are a great place to start your empathy work. Be aware of your “default settings” and use these skills to help you ensure the work you’re creating is satisfying the needs of someone with a similar archetype.

But don’t stop there. Once you’ve done that, it’s important to also work with each of the other archetypes to begin to broaden your perspective. Perhaps you’re not good at seeing the big picture. The Cultivator perspective will encourage you to look at the problem from a new angle and bring greater understanding to the work you’re doing. Or maybe you’re wrapped up in the future you’re trying to create and losing touch with the present moment. The Sage will help you ground yourself in the now and see something that might be lurking right under your feet.

Think of what might have happened if Pepsi was a little more thoughtful about the present moment when they were making that politically-charged ad. Or what Facebook might have done differently had they cultivated a bigger, more macro view of the situation before deploying their virtual tour.

Empathy isn’t going to save us all. It’s not a panacea for this industry’s numerous ills. But it is a start. And with constant practice and dedication to making it a part of your work, you’ll find that a more inclusive, aware, and ultimately understandable perspective is ready to be applied.

Michael Ventura is founder and chief executive officer at Sub Rosa.

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