Morrisons: has distanced itself from "nobody from Liverpool" casting call
Morrisons: has distanced itself from "nobody from Liverpool" casting call
A view from Christy Stewart-Smith

'Nobody from Liverpool': petty bigotry and stereotyping are endemic in marketing

Morrisons is in hot water after a casting agency put out a call for "proper working-class" people for a "Morrisons" project, stipulating: "nobody from Liverpool". The supermarket apologised for the offence caused by the third party's error. But is this indicative of a wider industry issue? We're all implicated, writes Christy Stewart-Smith, managing director of The Gate London.

Poor people of Liverpool. First Boris Johnson, and now this.

The awful thing is that, having worked both on the client and agency sides of the business, I'm astonished these kinds of faux pas don't occur more frequently.

Often, as is claimed in this case, they can be ascribed to basically well-intentioned marketers attempting to make their communications "representative" of their intended audience (there was a particularly ugly example in the 90s when Ford, in Eastern Europe, was caught replacing the black employees pictured in a press ad with white models "because there were almost no black people in Poland").

But increasingly, marketers arm themselves with quantitative data, bringing results that prove mid-Lothian voices are more 'trusted', or Welsh accents are perceived as more 'honest'. The worst example I recall showed a preference for customer service by Indian graduate telesales staff from Bangalore, over the dispirited, homegrown, minimum-wagers in their current UK call centre.

Which just proves you can get data to say anything.

A mirror to society?

I'm afraid to say that this kind of petty bigotry remains appallingly endemic in our culture - and media and advertising rarely do anything to dispel it. Journos and admen alike often try to pretend that they merely 'hold up a mirror to society'.

We are all implicated. Do you notice that there is no furore that in the "Morrisons" casting call, honest, "proper working-class people" must all have northern accents, nor even that working-class people should provide the basis for an idealised target audience? And no one complains when the same brief rules out anyone who sounds or looks "posh" – still the ultimate marketing crime.

My view is this is the tip of the iceberg. I've heard far more egregious calumnies, some even illegal, during the course of "private marketing discussions".

The problem is that marketing almost fetishises stereotyping.

The problem is that marketing almost fetishises stereotyping. In their search for ever more accurate targeting and segmentation, marketers and their market-research chums can't help pigeonholing people and inventing 'typologies' (now there's an '-ology' for you).

The recent scandal in charity fundraising stems, in part, at least, from marketers discovering that a disproportionate percentage of their income came from poorer, more elderly, more female audiences.

Did the fact that this group is also one of the most vulnerable and suggestible in our society stop them? On the contrary. They concentrated all their firepower on them, filling their letterboxes with bumph and subjecting them to cold-calling routines that would make a PPI claims company blush.

Finally, and only after poor Olive Cooke had taken her own life, feeling "overwhelmed" by charity requests for donations, did people question whether all this marketing was something to which we should aspire. One – thankfully, former – charity client of ours even had a horrid, pejorative nickname for these people: "Dorothy Donors".

We should be grateful when these things are exposed, because it shines a useful light on the deep-seated prejudices to which we are all susceptible.

Progress starts here

I believe the only way to actually make progress is to start properly respecting our customers and target audiences, and really examining the decisions we make when communicating with them.

The first thing to do is weed out anyone in your organisation who calls customers "punters". Suggest they work in HR instead (oops, there I go again). Then ban all use of "pen portraits". Encourage marketers to work on your shop floor (or your equivalent) as a core part of their job, so that they are forced to see customers as people, not consumers. Then reward people who celebrate diversity, in all its forms, in the way they communicate.

The best rule of thumb for avoiding the inevitable social-media battering, and subsequent customer boycott, is also the simplest. And it's the same one that keeps us all (mostly) polite to each other during the rest of our lives.

Simply ask yourself: "What if our customers could hear the way we're talking about them right now?"