Marketers and advertisers struggle to understand “mainstream audiences”: U.K. study

Marketers and advertisers are more biased and less empathetic than they like to believe, according to a provocative new research paper out of the U.K. This is creating a “substantial barrier” to connecting with audiences outside major cultural hubs like London and New York (or, presumably, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver).

Commissioned by the British publishing firm Reach, The Empathy Delusion is an attempt to better understand what it describes as the “culture war” that has arisen around polarizing issues like climate change, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

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“Our ability to rise above our emotions and intuition is vital to creating advertising which resonates with mainstream audiences,” says the paper, which is based on a quantitative survey of 2,019 nationally representative UK adults and 199 advertising and marketing professionals. “Unfortunately, our research suggests this may be a challenge the advertising and marketing industry is failing to rise to.”

The study measured the ability of the so-called “modern mainstream” and people working in marketing to understand other people’s emotions and perspectives, showing them 14 statements from a trait empathy scale developed by academic psychologists.

The statements were split between perspective taking (eg: “Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel in their place”) and emotional empathy (eg: “Other people’s misfortunes do not usually disturb me a great deal”), with respondents rating each statement based on how well they felt it described them.

Empathy levels were generally low, with less than one-third (29%) of the modern mainstream demonstrating high levels of perspective taking and emotional empathy. Marketing and advertising professionals fared only slightly better however, scoring 30% on the same scale.

“We are no better at understanding other people’s emotions and perspectives than the mainstream,” the study says. “This represents a major problem for an industry whose very success depends on a detailed and thorough understanding of the people it seeks to influence.”

The advertising industry also tends to lean left on the political spectrum, with 44% of industry professionals surveyed identifying as left-leaning, compared to just 25% of the modern mainstream. In addition, 36% of advertising and marketing professionals self-identified as centrist, compared with 52% of the modern mainstream.

While both marketing professionals and the modern mainstream placed equal importance on individualizing ethics like fairness/reciprocity, marketing professionals placed less emphasis on so-called “binding ethics” such as authority/respect (22% of marketing professionals vs. 39% of the modern mainstream).

“The moral bias of people in our industry, means we tend to views these mainstream concerns with suspicion,” wrote co-authors Andrew Tenzer of Reach and Ian Murray of house51. “So, we need to develop a more pluralist outlook.”

The Dictator Game

The paper also presents the results of a study called “The Dictator Game,” in which participants are paired with an anonymous partner and given a fictional £50 to share. It’s called “The Dictator Game” because the first person gets to decide how much of the money to keep and how much to share.

While 77% of the modern mainstream opted to give an equal share of £25 to the unknown person they were playing with, only 69% of people in marketing and advertising offered an equal share.

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The study also introduced another variable, with participants invited to play with people who voted in the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum. When marketers and ad people who voted remain were told they were playing with a “leave” voter, just 43% indicated a willingness to share 50/50.

When they were told they were playing with a fellow “remainer,” the proportion willing to divide the money equally rose to 82% (a phenomenon known as “in-group love” among social scientists).

“This departure from the fairness norm is a clear sign of a tendency to punish or discriminate against those holding opposing beliefs,” the paper says. “Whilst we see a similar pattern of polarizing behaviour in the modern mainstream sample, the drop is less pronounced between the in-group and out-group conditions (31 percentage points, versus 39% among marketers and advertisers).

Marketers were “heavily influenced” by identity in The Dictator Game said the study, which went on to suggest that many in the industry could be “strongly influenced” by intuitions and herd mentality. This is at odds with what the paper calls a “persistent belief” among marketers and advertisers that they are more empathetic and are trained to overcome their biases.

The study cites research by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, in which he concluded that in the U.S., liberals have two moral foundations (harm and fairness) turned up high, while others such as group loyalty and respect are turned way down. Conservatives on the other hand, tend to maintain an equal setting across variables, which allows messaging to cut through easier.

“The moral bias of people in our industry, means we tend to view these mainstream concerns with suspicion,” the report states. “So, we need to develop a more pluralist outlook.”

Chris Powell