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David Pidgeon 

Study reveals adland's awkward misunderstanding of mainstream aspirations

Study reveals adland's awkward misunderstanding of mainstream aspirations

Bad news for those working in advertising: a new study from publisher Reach Solutions has revealed that industry professionals do not understand the aspirations of the mainstream public.

The Aspiration Window paper, published this week, shows that advertising and marketing professionals "wildly overestimate" the mainstream’s desire for fame, money and image; that 'social purpose' is a low consideration for the public; and that marketers' "skewed view" of mainstream aspirations is shaped by its own social class and privilege.

“The aspirations window is open far too wide and it causes us to persistently miss the mark in capturing what really matters to the mainstream," said Andrew Tenzer, Reach Solutions' director of group insight.

"This is a problem of market orientation - an aspiration gap that ruthlessly exposes our industry’s basic lack of understanding of mainstream people.”

The research is the follow-up to the ‘The Empathy Delusion’ paper - which won a gold award at Mediatel's 2020 Media Research Awards earlier this year - and was conducted with house51. It uses frameworks from cross-cultural psychology, anthropology and the social sciences and was conducted both prior to and during the pandemic.

It investigated the question of aspiration amongst advertising and marketing professionals and the modern mainstream. Its top findings include:

- The advertising industry places significantly greater importance on ‘extrinsic’ motivations such as fame, money and image than the mainstream does.

- Advertising and marketing professionals think that 82% of the mainstream want a high-status job and to earn lots of money whereas only 28% of the mainstream indicate this. This compares with 47% of industry professionals who personally desire this.

- Advertising and marketing professionals think that 68% of the mainstream want to own expensive possessions whereas only 11% of the mainstream indicate this. This compares with 18% of industry professionals who personally desire this.

- Advertising and marketing professionals think that 63% of the mainstream want to be famous whereas only 14% of the mainstream indicate this. This compares with 25% of industry professionals who personally aspire for this.

“Our data reveals the extent to which our industry misjudges mainstream aspirations – believing them to be far more motivated by fame, money and wealth than we are ourselves," said Tenzer.

"This represents a profound aspiration gap, and a basic lack of understanding of the underlying motivations of the people we seek to influence with our advertising."

The study also evaluates 'social virtue' marketing strategies, but concludes that "no-one believes social virtue influences buying, not even the advertising and marketing community."

Although Covid-19 has amplified the social virtue narrative with many marketers, who assume that ‘doing good’ will be an increasing source of competitive advantage, only 20% of advertising and marketing professionals and 15% of the mainstream trust brands to behave in a social responsible way.

Additionally, choosing from a list of reasons that influences their buying decisions, both the mainstream and people working in advertising and marketing rank social virtue related factors as the least important.

Only 9% of the mainstream consider a brand’s political stance and affiliations to play a role in purchasing decisions versus 13% of industry professionals.

“We have identified a clear disconnect between one of the dominant narratives in our industry and practitioners’ beliefs about what actually works," says Tenzer.

"The simple fact is that even people in the industry don’t believe social virtue matters to mainstream audiences. We believe the industry probably champions it to make it feel better about itself."

The report concludes that a lack of understanding of mainstream aspirations is driven by the "elitist composition" of the advertising and marketing industry. 70% of advertising and marketers are from an AB background compared to 29% of the modern mainstream.

The lack of social mobility, access to the advertising and marketing profession and privileged make-up of its members is "distorting its perception" of mainstream aspirations because the industry on the whole has had different social, cultural and economic experiences from them, the report states.

“Our notion of mainstream aspiration is seriously flawed due to the elitist composition of the marketing and advertising industry. We need to start addressing the elephant in the room – social diversity,” said Tenzer.

The white paper concludes that the advertising and marketing community can tap into mainstream aspirations more by collaborating with mass media experts, building brands more holistically in line with mainstream thinking and by becoming more diverse and inclusive.

However, along with diversity and inclusion, the industry also needs to factor in mobility and social class which continue to be ignored, the report states.

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NigelJacklin, MD, on 26 Jun 2020
“Good stuff. With respect to the question...why do so many people in the industry have AB backgrounds...we have done some work looking at 'what jobs exist' to help students. Many teachers have a fairly incomplete knowledge of what jobs exist...maybe obscure and ethereal things like marketing strategist elude them. The resultant bias is an issue. Social and market researcher Ella Fryer-Smith has just started a series of podcasts about this.”

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