The Case For Age And Gender Equality In Advertising

dumb dadsOn my first day of work as a young account executive settling into a new job at a new ad agency, I was brought around to meet the media director. What a piece of work this guy was. Terribly overweight, cheap suit, wrinkled shirt hanging halfway out, horrible, polyester tie not quite pulled all the way up, bad comb-over and an in-your-face, let’s say eccentric, personality. The very first thing he told me was how he and his wife had decided against having children in order to dedicate themselves to seeing as many Grateful Dead concerts in as many parts of the country as possible.

He may have missed etiquette class and cotillion and he certainly wasn’t reading his comp subscriptions to GQ and Esquire. But you couldn’t help but love him.  His searing intelligence, irreverent sense of humor, and of course his love of The Dead got me past appearances quickly.

After exchanging pleasantries and recollections of our favorite Dead concerts, (yes, I had been to a few myself), he asked me a provocative question that was followed by a schooling I’ll never forget.

“What’s the target audience for Nature Valley Granola Bars,” he asked me about the brand I was assigned to. Not fully prepared for a grilling on a get to know you pop in visit on my first day on the job, I stuttered, “Moms with kids, I would think.”

“Wrong!”  With a steely gaze and absolute conviction, he declared, “The target for any packaged goods product is anyone with a buck in their pocket.” (Let’s adjust for inflation and now say a few bucks.)

After an intense graduate program in advertising and positions in account and brand management, this was news to me.  What about reach and frequency, BDI’s and CDI’s, slicing and dicing demographic and psychographic information for a highly targeted buy? Here’s the top media executive at a major ad agency telling me to forget all I learned.

Yet the man had a point. Why alienate anyone? Maybe granola bars would be a great source of quick, tasty energy for a 28-year-old single woman when she’s out on her 50-mile bike ride.  Or perfect for a divorced dad who wants to feed his kids healthy snacks on his nights and weekends.

I once had a boss who liked to say that marketing is all about trade-offs. Simply put, you can’t target moms without sacrificing everyone else with a few bucks in their pockets.

This targeting dilemma – go broad and get the numbers or go narrow to give yourself a better chance for a sale with a focused, more qualified target – was interesting then and even more interesting in the digital age where “broad” and “narrow” have taken on entirely new meanings in media.

A decade or two ago, a company making yoga mats would never try to reach me. I’m too male (men account for only 16% of all yoga practitioners) and too old. However, since I have visited yoga sites and purchased yoga mats online, I see banners, pop-ups, Google Search and Facebook ads regularly.

Of course the science is a long way from being perfected. I also see lots of pop ups for enterprise software and B2B security products with big price tags targeted to CFO’s and CTO’s in larger companies because I have clients in those categories and visit their websites frequently.

Still, this type of precision targeting, even if it misfires some of the time, can truly liberate marketers from demographics, as it should.

Smart marketers of niche products with limited budgets, like yoga mats and $3,500 carbon-frame road bicycles, understand the power of digital and social media to build awareness, cultivate interest, drive traffic to sites or stores, and ultimately, to make sales.

But so many marketers of “buck in your pocket” items like granola bars and other mainstream grocery/drug store products seem to be leaving a lot of money on the table. Allowing demographics to drive decision-making may actually limit marketers’ ability to reach qualified buyers and undermine efficiency. Equally important, brand communications based on demographically driven parameters stand a good chance of alienating prospects.

I might be an older, male, empty-nester, but the buck in my pocket is every bit as good as the buck in the pocket of the married, 32 year-old mom with two kids at home when it comes to granola bars. Actually, more valuable than most, as my Facebook profile, tweets and web visits clearly indicate that I live a very active lifestyle and healthy eating is important to me.

People talk innovation but crave comfort. It’s easy to sort people into the same old superficial buckets and talk ourselves into thinking that the world hasn’t changed. That the consumer and trade press, in 2014, make a big deal over an interracial couple in a Super Bowl ad or gay people in any ad is a sign that the marketing world isn’t keeping pace. We’re just getting to that now? Not to mention the mom-driven storyline in advertising that does not seem to be changing.

Dad’s a nice, harmless, but inept buffoon. Mom’s always rolling her eyes at him and the kids are more worldly and wise than both of them put together.

All storytelling, advertising included, needs some kind of dramatic tension, but is this kind of conflict, even when masked by humor, the right way to go in our 30-second slices of life? That is, conflict driven by a certain “I’m better than you are” smugness based on age or gender. “Slice-of-Life” has been a staple of advertising for decades, but as Americans continue to stray from their expected, traditional roles in life, pulling this technique off gets tricky. Values have changed, as have lifestyles. There are many, many different kinds of moms, dads and kids out there.

We’re taught that focus is essential in marketing, but are the old, clichéd portraits of wise moms, dumb dads, dopey guys in beer commercials and savvy, young working women who have it all helping us connect with the brands they stand for, or are they alienating us? If the latter is true, as I suspect it is, as often as not, have we embraced the rhetoric of exclusion when we should be exploring a new language of inclusion?

One could argue that either way from the perspective of the Internet. We find the way to our cohorts through social media, which is certainly an exercise in connecting with like-minded people. We include those who share our perspectives and exclude those who do not. However, my Facebook friends and Twitter followers – not to mention the products targeted specifically to me in the digital realm – don’t seem to be as concerned with my age, gender or geographical location as with what I actually say and do.

I often wonder how the myth of mom as “gatekeeper” lives on. Nearly every packaged goods company I’ve worked with, from the mighty global powerhouses to the regional marketers, still buy media and create messaging to appeal to the “30-49 year old mom with kids at home.” (As if even that was a cohesive target today.)

Yet a Time Magazine piece from January 4, 2103, reports “40% of men are now the primary grocery shopper in the household.” Another 2013 study cited in the October 24 edition of the Think Progress blog concluded that “nearly half (of men) say they do at least half of their household’s grocery shopping. Of that group, more than half do all of the shopping and 46 percent say they are responsible for cooking all of their house’s food.”

In fact, I was that guy when I was married and had kids at home. I did all the shopping and most of the cooking. Portray me as a buffoon in your advertising at your own risk.

More important, as the Internet knows, personal interests, passions and perspectives usually trump demographics when it comes to purchases and brand preference. There are exceptions, of course. If I’m selling walk-in bathtubs or supplemental Medicare insurance plans, of course age is more important than lifestyle. You cannot say the same for most items purchased in the supermarket.

In this time of instant gratification, customization, narcissism and denial of aging, so many people are beyond categorization. But we all have built in prejudices, so this can be very easy to forget, as I myself did last week while having lunch in a new neighborhood restaurant. I was having a nice time and enjoying the food, but my attitude shifted when the waitress told me that I’d be charged if I wanted a soft drink refill (from the gun). My girlfriend, Francesca, told me that I should talk to the owner because I was “just the kind of customer they want” and that my opinion would matter to them. “No,” I responded. “They’re interested in 21-40 year olds, they don’t care about me.” In the moment, I was thinking like an old school, by the demographics marketer and actually discriminating against myself!

“What? You spend money in restaurants and live three blocks from here. You go out for lunch every day and for dinner all the time. You’re exactly who they’re interested in,” she wisely pointed out.

Yes! I’ve got a few bucks in my pocket and I’m going to spend them. I’m not going to buy your product because it gets my clothes cleaner, gets my teeth whiter, or even if its taste is preferred by two to one over the leading brand. I am going to buy your product if I perceive it to fit into my value system and lifestyle.

Regardless, if you want to reach me, or any of your customers or prospects, you can still go the mass route in media, buy TV ads and rely on messaging stereotypes to get me interested.

This just might work if you’re a brand spending $100 million or more in TV, though inefficiently, to be sure. But if you’re spending $5 or $10 million on national TV, why bother? With McDonald’s, Bud Light, Geico, the phone carriers, the car companies and everyone else with media budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, is it possible to stand out? Do you really want to wager your entire $10 million budget on “great creative” making a difference? Digital, social and other “non-traditional” media offer so many more high impact, personal ways of reaching people than a four-week TV blast that will likely be quickly forgotten, if people actually notice it in the first place.

Creatively, do want still want to rely on mindless stereotypes to connect with your target? I hate, hate, hate those smug Yoplait girls, resisting all culinary temptations because their yogurt is “soooo good.” OK, that’s a totally subjective, perspective from a grouchy old guy. They’ve been running that campaign forever, so it must be working, right? And Yoplait would be the first to point out that I’m not the target. Except I am and Chopani is eating their lunch.

We want to hang on to a world that’s real, tangible and familiar, but technology and ever-evolving social norms have irrevocably changed who we are and how we connect with each other. Most consumer goods companies have not caught up. Smart Internet marketers across all categories understand that one size doesn’t fit all, but the old rules of the analog world still seem to apply to our “everyday,” mainstream products.

Is there really any difference now between the “online world” and the “real world?” The winners will be those who understand that these worlds are one and the same, and if anything, it’s the former that’s driving the latter.

I’ve got a few bucks in my pocket. Do you want them or not?

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