My Direct Marketing Career Taught Me to Discriminate

Barry Silverstein
Jul 20, 2020 · 4 min read

“Discrimination” doesn’t mean what you think.

Illustration of various people social networking
Illustration of various people social networking
Gordon Johnson, Pixabay.com

My 40-plus year career in direct marketing taught me a lot about marketing — including how to discriminate.

It turns out that one of the most important direct marketing principles has a lot to do with discrimination, but it is based on the secondary definition of discrimination: “Recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another.” Unfortunately, most of us know discrimination only by its primary definition: “The unjust or prejudicial treatment of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.”

Direct marketing taught me to discriminate through a basic direct marketing tenet: There is nothing more important than recognizing and understanding the difference between one person and another. In direct marketing, you work very hard to become intimately knowledgeable of particular audience segments. You study demographics — data based on a specific group’s characteristics, such as age, gender, marital status, ethnicity, race, education, income and employment. You also study psychographics — data based on a specific group’s attitudes, aspirations, and likes and dislikes, such as habits, hobbies, buying behavior, political leanings and values. From all of this data, you build a profile of a target audience and then develop what you believe to be the best offer and creative approach for that audience.

That’s the scientific side of direct marketing. There’s also an artistic side. From a creative writing perspective, direct marketing is most effective when you pick out a member of your target audience and write to that individual, “me to you.” It’s as if you’re writing a personal letter (you remember what a letter is, right?). If you want that person to engage with you and respond to your marketing message (maybe even buy something), you want him or her to really believe you understand their wants and needs. The one person you are picturing in your mind when you write — your audience of one — needs to hear from you about the benefits of what you’re trying to sell.

Direct marketers know that individuals are unique. In a group, they are comprised of a variety of attributes, some of which are really important to eliciting a desirable action. Direct marketers know how to step into someone else’s shoes so they can see things from that person’s own point of view. Direct marketers make an effort to climb into someone’s head so they can really understand what that person thinks, feels and believes.

Only by relating to a person in this way can the direct marketer do his or her job effectively. A beneficial side effect of this kind of thinking is that, since appealing to their differences is important to being successful in direct marketing, you look at people objectively, appreciating and respecting people’s differences rather than hating them for it. Marketing with the objective of getting a response from someone else has a way of making you see things with a more scientific mindset, keeping your own opinions to yourself.

Today, you don’t hear the term “direct marketing” much anymore. But as a direct marketing old-timer, I smile knowingly when I see current techniques being used by social media marketers. It reminds me of when I first realized that the “new methods” we applied during my agency days were fundamentally derived from the book Scientific Advertising written by Claude Hopkins in 1923. It’s much the same with today’s digital marketing. Even if you think what you’re doing is new and innovative, it is likely derived from the foundational principles of direct marketing.

When a foundational principle teaches you to discriminate, you pay attention. I had always thought of “discrimination” in a negative light. Direct marketing gave me a new appreciation for its positive meaning. At the same time, it heightened my awareness of its primary negative definition. It made me wonder what really makes one person discriminate against another. I concluded it was basically that some people are fearful of others who are different. Interestingly, it is those very differences that are crucial to effective direct marketing.

As a direct marketer, you can’t afford to pollute a direct marketing campaign with your personal prejudices. Instead, you sublimate your own likes, dislikes and prejudices in an effort to appeal to another individual. You begin to understand how important that individual is, whatever they may look like, when you get a response that results in an order. That’s why the only color that matters in direct marketing isn’t the color of someone’s skin, it’s green, the color of profit. The bottom line in direct marketing is the bottom line.

The fact is discrimination, however you define it, is not a natural state — it is a learned behavior. So think about this. Wouldn’t it be intriguing if everyone learned how to discriminate like a direct marketer — according to the second definition of “discrimination” instead of the first definition? What if we all learned the importance and value of the differences between one person and another — instead of letting our own emotions get in the way by inappropriately reacting to a person’s skin color, sexual preference, religion, or any other difference?

If everyone were to think like a direct marketer — to embrace the idea that differences are good and have intrinsic value — we’d be a lot better off.

Barry Silverstein is a retired direct marketing/branding professional, author and blogger. Find out more about him at https://www.barrysilverstein.com

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Barry Silverstein

Written by

I’m an author, blogger and retired marketing professional. Visit my website to learn more: https://www.barrysilverstein.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +755K people. Follow to join our community.

Barry Silverstein

Written by

I’m an author, blogger and retired marketing professional. Visit my website to learn more: https://www.barrysilverstein.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +755K people. Follow to join our community.

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