Walk A Mile In My Shoes: The role of empathy in advertising

The Leith Agency
Jun 29, 2015 · 5 min read

Leith planner, Thea on the role of empathy in advertising and how we can all give our empathy skills a good work out.

In autumn 2015, a new museum will open in London dedicated to helping understand other people’s lives.

The Empathy Museum will include a ‘shoe shop’ where visitors will be fitted, literally, with somebody else’s shoes; a Syrian refugee maybe, or an old Etonian banker, while listening to a recording of the shoes’ owner talking about their life and experiences.

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Images from “A Long Walk” by Shannon Jensen, documenting the shoes of Sudanees refugees

Brainchild (and long-standing dream) of popular philosopher Roman Krznaric, the museum will also host events such as Human Libraries, where instead of borrowing a book you borrow a person for conversation.

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It all stems from a belief in the amazing power of empathy to create social change. But it also stems from a deep concern.

“More and more people are caught up in a culture of hyper-individualism where the question “what’s in it for me?” dominates their minds.” writes Krznaric. “The big picture is clear: there’s a growing empathy deficit that is creating new levels of social division.”

President Obama has gone a step further, saying that the “empathy deficit is a more pressing political problem for America than the federal deficit.” The recent horrifying shooting in Charleston has raised questions about gun control. But it has also raised questions about how someone can come to lack such basic human empathy.

David Ogilvy is famous for saying, “the customer is not a moron. She is your wife”. Thankfully, since this 1960s wake-up call, the advertising industry has got a lot better at understanding and respecting the people it talks to (versus the pre-60s defaults of shouting and patronising).

But what does it really mean to empathise with people, from an advertising perspective?


Firstly, I would suggest it means making a conscious effort to avoid the weird pseudo-military language people in advertising are guilty of using: laser-targeting; data harvesting; capturing the audience; harnessing attention. When we use this language we put a barrier between ourselves and the people we’re talking about. We de-humanise them. And that’s not good.


Empathy means finding new ways to walk a mile in people’s shoes. Instead of a 90 minute focus group in a bland hotel, we can spend time with people in their own world or give them creative ways of sharing aspects of their lives and thoughts with us. To understand the feelings of the audience for the Scottish Government’s recent motorcycle safety campaign, research agency 2CV incorporated Go-Pro helmet cameras into their research methodology. And here at Leith we helped people to create photographic journals of how they feel about crime and safety in their local area.


Empathy means being open to recognising when a problem isn’t best served by an advertising shaped solution. The 2015 Cannes Media Grand Prix went to a Vodafone app from Y&R Istanbul that lets women in Turkey call for help, secretly, by shaking their phones. Almost a quarter of all women in Turkey who use smartphones have downloaded the app and it’s been activated over 103,000 times.


Empathy means questioning the value of advertising that fundamentally pisses people off. Useless, lazy, pre-roll ads on YouTube would be a good place to start.


Empathy means using the unique emotional potential of advertising to create positive social change. To move someone to tears in 30 seconds. To remind us the people we fear are more like us then we thought. To bring different ‘tribes’ together behind a bigger social purpose. With P&G’s “Like a Girl”, Under Armour’s “I will what I want” and Vodafone’s safety app for Turkish women roaring amongst the loudest at Cannes this year, 2015 may yet be remembered as the year the ad industry finally began empathising properly with women and doing meaningful things to help change the way society thinks about women’s roles, identities and bodies.

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According to Museum of Empathy founder, Roman Krznaric: “the latest neuroscience research reveals that 98% of us have the ability to empathise, but few of us put our full empathic potential to use”. He goes on to say that: “as a society we have under-utilised the power of empathy to challenge prejudices and stereotypes and inspire us us to take action to relieve child poverty”.

So perhaps we can all have a think about better ways of bringing empathy into advertising — and doing a bit more good as a result.

Oh, and on the remote and bizarre off-chance that Roman Krznaric ever finds himself reading this — I’d be curious to ask him if he’s ever been to the Museum of Childhood, in Edinburgh. Here, tucked away on one of its helter-skelter little floors, is a shoe with its own unique story of empathy. It’s an old, worn shoe; but it’s one that’s been transformed into something altogether different. It was an artist’s empathy with this shoe and its vivid suggestions of desperation and love which led to the creation of this beautiful short film. Proof, were it needed, of the good things that can happen when empathy and creativity come together.

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