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Do those who work in marketing and advertising have an empathy problem?

For what we do to be successful, marketing and advertising is dependent on one fundamental above all others: that we understand and empathise with the people we are talking to. Otherwise how can the work we do ever hope to engage or, more importantly, deliver effectively against its objectives. Unfortunately though, there's a lot of evidence that says understanding and empathy is sorely lacking in our industries.

To get to grips with the 'whys' of this, media owner Reach has published a couple of reports that are worth unpacking: The Empathy Delusion last year; and just released, The Aspiration Window. [Note: though they weren't asked in these studies, we can safely assume the findings would be replicated across senior management functions in most businesses].

Stimulated by the Brexit and Trump Culture Wars that were in full swing at that time (events many of us had failed to predict and are still in denial over), the first of these reports looked to understand why we'd had a mass comprehension failure on such important socio-political events. Which it did by comparing our moral foundations and ethical framework with those in the 'Modern Mainstream' (the middle 50% in terms of household income).

The findings can be summed up in two key points...

  1. That the underpinning drives of marketing and advertising people are firmly rooted in Individualising (a focus on the welfare and rights of the individual) whereas the Modern Mainstream are more concerned about Binding (a focus on loyalty, authority and the ‘ethics of community’). With a resulting deviation in motivations: being different versus wanting to belong.

  2. People who work in advertising and marketing are much more likely to have a liberal outlook on life and be left leaning in their politics, whereas the Modern Mainstream are more conservative (with a small c) and centrist (not necessarily right wing) in their politics. But research says it's left leaning liberals who are much less accepting of alternative points of view and the people who have them (something this study confirmed about us): the certainty that comes from 'knowing' you are morally right.

So the conclusion was stark: no we didn't understand or have empathy with 'normal' people. Anything but in fact: we're heading in the opposite direction. Hence our failure to grasp two of the biggest social and cultural shifts of our time.

Nor were the responses of many agencies the answer: getting staff out on the street to mix with the great unwashed (before heading home to Hoxton). This isn't being empathetic it's being patronising: a trustifarian gap year poverty* safari that probably did little more than reinforce a sense of difference, distance and potentially even dislike, rather than closing the empathy gap.[*Important point: what we're talking about here isn't even true poverty; that's a whole nother magnitude of difference to our comfortable (upper) middle-class experiences]

And we don't learn. Whilst the 'out' group has shifted, this attempt to know the 'other' is identical to the recent cry from our industry for help in understanding the black experience. To which the response from people of colour was generally (and in the nicest possible way) "work it out for yourself...racism is your problem not ours". Because you cannot have empathy where there is prejudice. And whether POC or the Modern Mainstream that's what this is unfortunately. We may hate to hear it, and argue otherwise, but we work in an industry where prejudice is endemic.

Prejudice (noun) Preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.

Which brings us to Reach's second report: The Aspiration Window. Where The Empathy Delusion looked at the underlying moral foundations that drive our beliefs and behaviour, this report explores differences in the more explicit aspirations and desires of the same two groups (us and them) and how well we grasp these. Or not. And again we see the same disconnect; the same lack of empathy and understanding, with the negative feedback loop into the work we do that this must cause.

The key points that leapt out for me...

Firstly, that the marketing and advertising community (still) buys into the 'rich = happy' myth, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We seriously underestimate the quality of life enjoyed by anyone earning under £50k, and over estimate the happiness of those earning more. When in reality, experienced quality of life is broadly flat between £20k and £100k.

Those working in marketing and advertising over-estimate how much money impacts quality of life
Those working in marketing and advertising over-estimate how much money impacts quality of life

Clearly all those safaris into the real world were not showing something that looked particularly appealing (to us)!

Secondly, marketing and advertising has poor conception of its own affluence and where we sit on this income ladder: we assume we're much less well off than we actually are. By some way. On a poor to rich scale of 0 to 10, our industry rates itself a 5.5 on average (somewhat self-deludingly). This is just 15% higher than how the Modern Mainstream rate themselves, despite the typical marketing and advertising salary being twice the UK average.

So we think...

  1. Money makes you happy;

  2. What we earn and, by implication, the life we enjoy is 'average';

  3. Those earning less than us (i.e. below our definition of 'average', which is anything but) have a poor quality of life;

As night follows day, this leads to the final big point...and confirms the empathy and understanding failures we've already seen.

It may come as a surprise (which is the point I guess), but those working in marketing and advertising rate extrinsic goals (money, image, fame) as more important than those in the Modern Mainstream do (by nearly twice as much on fact).

And this is where the logic flaw comes in.

Because if our lives are only 'average', and money makes you happy, 'others' who are less well off must surely be motivated by these superficial things even more than we are. Which is why we rate their perceived importance for the Modern Mainstream accordingly, assuming extrinsic factors motivate this group even more than they do us.

Nearly 4x more important than is actually the case for the Modern Mainstream themselves.

Marketing and advertising over estimates the importance of extrinsic motivations

In the same way that white privilege hampers our ability to see our own racial prejudice and the discrimination this causes, our affluence privilege blinkers us to the prejudice we feel for those beyond our ivory towers and results in misconceptions about their motivations. We extrapolate from our own beliefs and aspirations, to the point where we are essentially saying "poor people would be happier with more stuff or if they were on Love Island".

This is as patronising as it is arrogant.

But it is confirmed by our perceptions of the values this group hold, which then feeds our assumptions about the aspirations they have, versus how that same group self-define: a mis-prioritisation of hedonism, achievement and power over universalism, benevolence and tradition...something which says more about us than them. [Note: journalists and the media generally are likely coming from the same place we are, which is why news reports and TV shows often perpetuate these same misconceptions]

Marketing and advertising don't understand the values of mainstream consumers

None of this makes great reading. But much as we might like it to be otherwise, it does ring true unfortunately. So what are we to do about it?

The answer comes down to what empathy actually means.

Empathy (noun) The ability to understand and share the feelings of another

Empathy means checking our privilege: white, male, middle-class, affluent, healthy, educated or whatever else comes with prejudice attached.

It's not imposing our own world view or judging that of others. It's realising that understanding isn't the same as agreement or endorsement (and being able to hold that tension). It's seeing human beings not their beliefs and behaviours. It's not assuming our motivations are the same as someone else's. It's recognising that not enjoying the privilege of affluence doesn't make people unhappy. But that it does create different challenges (physical, mental, emotional and social) we may not realise or comprehend, different beliefs we may not always agree with (but can't discount or demean), and different needs and aspirations which may not match our own (and that's our problem and no one else's).

This is where empathy starts and the place we need to get to as an industry to really do our jobs properly. And it's not somewhere research (alone) can get us to. It requires we do our own inner work, individually and corporately, to address the systemic, ingrained barriers of prejudice we may not even realise exist. Only then will we have a right to speak into situations that are not necessarily our own experience, particularly if we want to offer challenge to beliefs and behaviour where challenge is required.

This won't be easy. It's something that has to happen intentionally and top-down within a business. It needs clear leadership. And it's only then that we will be able to feel empathy for people coming from a different place.

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