A Divided Country Means a Divided Audience for Marketers

Why understanding always trumps ignorance

Last week, I talked with two prominent advertising professionals: One, a VP of Strategy at a global ad agency, the other an owner of a small, local ad agency.
 
They both said they didn’t “understand” why Donald Trump has so much support in the current Presidential election. Interestingly, both of these folks have clients who do business in areas where Trump has substantial support.
 
Hearing them made me angry. Not because I support Donald Trump (I don’t), but I understand his appeal. I made myself learn about it.
 
You don’t have to support him or like him, and you certainly don’t have to vote for him. But if you work in advertising or marketing, there’s no excuse for not understanding his base of support and people who comprise that group.
 
Because we are in the business of understanding people who are not like us. Or at least we used to be.
 
How can we effectively market to consumers if we don’t understand them? Do we assume that most people think or act the way we do? Are we ensconced in a bubble that prevents us from empathizing with people from other walks of life?
 
(OK, so if you’re thinking that taking the time to understand Trump supporters would be futile, replace the phrase “Trump supporters” with “millennials.” Both represent tens of millions of Americans. Neither one are a monolithic group. What would happen if you walked into your advertising or marketing job and said, “I don’t understand millennials and I don’t care to”?)
 
This is where research and insight used to come into play. Agency account teams, creative teams, research teams — it was expected that we’d experience a product or service and truly learn about the people to whom we were marketing. We were told to go into stores, to talk with customers at focus groups in shopping malls or suburban office parks, to head out and just observe people.
 
Perhaps I’m wrong, but we’ve gotten lazy. Our lack of time, budget constraints, and the convenience of the Internet have led us to take shortcuts. What little research many of us do starts and ends on Google, or in our own self-edited social media accounts. We borrow from each other’s “learnings” to create our own little circle jerk of knowledge.
 
The bubble in which so many advertising professionals find themselves is as small as any other in America. Culturally, ethnically, geographically, we’ve segregated ourselves into our own kind. We self-select what we want to see in our Facebook feeds — and algorithms serve up more of it to reinforce those preferences. And then we claim to not understand what other slices of our countrymen are experiencing.
 
We have cute little derogatory ways of talking about people when we throw them into little buckets for our creative briefs. We call them names like “Joe and Jane Sixpack” and refer to their hometowns as part of “Flyover Country.” It serves as a poor substitute for the fact that we don’t have any real insight into their hopes, dreams, fears, realities, and fantasies. How can we have that all-so-important “two-way conversation” marketers say they prize? How can we persuade them to buy anything?
 
You can’t get on planes, fly to marketing conferences, take Uber to all your stops, tweet your favorite quotes on “disruption,” and then claim you understand America. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
 
You have to get out and see, do, and experience places and things that you’d might not ordinarily would. This is a big, diverse world and you won’t learn that from an app. You won’t learn it at a cocktail hour in a posh boutique hotel in a hipster part of town.
 
I’ve worked in advertising agencies all across America. Lived in red states and blue ones. Had co-workers and clients who were at times forward-thinking people and defenders of the status quo. I’ve been a writer for nearly every type of vertical category and business you can think of. Part of the first assignment I ever got required me to understand people who weren’t necessarily like me. It still remains that way today.
 
I continually hear and read how advertising isn’t effective anymore. I disagree, but mostly because it’s our own fault. We’re the ones who aren’t listening. We’re the ones who don’t understand the audience, their wants and desires. We’re doing too much speaking, listening and marketing to ourselves.
 
This divide will only get more pronounced. We’re on the cusp of some great innovations in both technology and marketing. I know because I’m in the bubble where I read our industry’s so-called “thought leaders” yap endlessly on about them. VR, AR, drones, bots, driverless cars, frictionless this-and-that. We often forget the millions of people who aren’t living in our bubble, who don’t share our worldview, who’ve seen many of the downsides of “disruption” with few of the benefits.
 
If it’s part of the social fabric, at the very least we need to understand it. This doesn’t get easier as you get more experience. Preconceived notions, quick jumps to conclusions, and the notion that we’ve seen it all before influence our assumptions about people, behaviors, and brands. But it’s no excuse for not tackling every assignment or new project with questions that need real research to answer.
 
One of my all-time favorite quotes came from a client of mine. He was a 60 year-old car dealer in Texas. We were showing him a media plan that suggesting running ads during reruns of “The Simpsons.” He questioned it for a minute because he never watched the show, but we presented data showing how it fit his target demographic. He agreed.
 
Then he said, “Well, I like ice cream, but when I go fishing I bring worms.”
 
In that moment, he understood. As did I.
 
In an era where we’re so connected to everything yet so disconnected from others, we need those proverbial worms to truly understand any large, multifaceted audience. To get them, we have to keep digging — and unearth what people who aren’t like us truly think, feel, and do.