Advertising is consumer-obsessed – or at least that’s how people who work in the industry would describe it. The reality is that marketing professionals are only obsessed with one type of consumer – white, upper-class, middle-aged people who live in a posh London enclave and whose kids attend private school.
Basically, the type of person who works in advertising. Don’t believe the industry talk about connecting with diverse communities. The AB demographic is the only section of society advertising has ever been interested in.
The industry not only ignores working-class people, it harbours a contempt for them. They are reduced to lazy stereotypes in ads – you still rarely hear a working-class accent and when you do it tends to be in campaigns for junk food or bingo brands.
People from working-class backgrounds are often perceived by marketing professionals as tabloid-reading Brexit voters who buy rubbish brands and go on shit holidays.
This ridiculously myopic image of what it is to be working class perpetuates in part because so few people in advertising are working class themselves or socialise with people from different backgrounds to their own. The aim of advertising should be to bring the country together and create conversations, but instead it is helping to fuel a class war.
Class is so rarely discussed in the industry that I welcomed the opportunity to be part of a panel discussion entitled "Class: UK marketing’s most ignored issue?" at the Effie UK Summit last week.
My fellow panelists, Vicki Maguire, the chief creative officer at Havas London, Lucky Generals founding partner Andy Nairn, and The Unmistakables founder and chief executive Asad Dhunna, are part of the small but (thankfully) growing number of people in advertising trying to drive change.
During the discussion, Andy Nairn observed how this revulsion ad people seem to have for working-class people permeates creative briefs and treatments, which feature working-class character descriptions like “downtrodden Debbie” and paint “their” lives as relentlessly bleak.
The panel agreed that the socioeconomic group that ad professionals consider to be aspirational is AB, and so that’s where all the creative and strategic thinking goes. The result is that big brands spend millions on advertising designed for one portion of society, while the majority of consumers are overlooked.
Another consequence has been that advertising’s output is simply not resonating with the public. Only a handful of brands are creating truly populist work. These include Ikea, KFC and Asda, which has just launched a fun Halloween campaign.
These brands offer entertainment, some much-needed escapism and, crucially, a sense of humour. Campaigns like KFC’s funny, self-deprecating pandemic-response campaign added value because they entertained people during dark times.
Instead of elevating spirits, most brands are bombarding people with often disingenuous stories about their purpose. This is resulting in humourless, generic, forgettable work focused on worthiness. It rarely strikes a chord because its puritanical nature fails to connect in a time when people need a light touch and escapism to distract them from the challenges they’re facing.
The Outsiders’ research last year into what ads resonated with working-class people during lockdown revealed that no respondents spontaneously remembered any purpose-driven work. By contrast, nearly everyone recalled last year’s Just Eat campaign.
Without systemic change and diverse groups of people in leadership positions, this industry will lose its relevance and shrink further into a bubble of its own making.
Steven Lacey is founder of The Outsiders