It's Time to Toss Out Ogilvy's Adage About the Consumer Being Your Wife

Ad World Is Not a Fair Representation of the Real World

By Published on .

Matt Herrmann
Matt Herrmann
Apologies to David Ogilvy, but while the consumer still isn't a moron, chances are that she bears a declining resemblance to your wife as well. While Ogilvy's famous exhortation reminded a generation of advertisers that the household consumer is a thinking, reasoning, sentient being who doesn't deserve condescending copy, he might have inadvertently created another problem -- the presumption that we advertisers and marketers share more than we actually do with our audience, and that our experience is a valid proxy for our consumers.

I'm probably giving Mr. Ogilvy a little more credit and/or blame than he deserves for this. After all, looking at the world through the eyes of our personal experiences is a fairly common error in human judgment. Cognitive bias such as this has spawned an entire subgenre of psychology devoted to studying and categorizing these mostly subconscious "patterns of deviation." (My favorite bias is the self-serving bias: "Perceiving oneself responsible for desirable outcomes but not responsible for undesirable ones.")

But while these common lapses in judgment might be fairly harmless in the everyday review of events or even helpful in explaining why America might choose Bristol's awkward moves over Brandy's clearly superior technique, they can seriously undermine our professional determinations as marketers.

In marketing and advertising, our effectiveness depends many times on our abilities to act as a proxy for someone who might be interested in our brands and products. And while we might think that our instincts are very good, all too often our thinking is biased toward our personal sociocultural status and experience. This can be fatally misleading.

Next time you're in a meeting, take a look around and make an inventory of your peers, especially the senior ones calling the shots. If you work at a mainline advertising agency or major marketing organization, you'll notice that the majority of those seated at the table are probably married, have children and are white or sometimes Asian (we've certainly made strides here since Mr. Ogilvy's time, but we're not where we should be!).

Now turn on network TV and take a similar inventory. More often than not, you'll see a world that reflects what you saw around the table.

Now, let's compare that to the truth on the ground in America. We'll see what the 2010 Census will yield. But in 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Report showed very different picture.

For instance, the most typical family featured in advertising, "married with children," is actually the third-most-common household, at only 22% of households. The largest household group, 28%, is actually the "married with no children" home. In fact, the "one-person household," only 17% of the population in 1970, became 27% of the population by 2007 and is still growing. White, non-Hispanic families are a minority in the two largest states, California and Texas.

Surprised? We were, a little. Our clients were, a lot.

Clearly, communication that seeks to reflect any given brand's "typical" user is in danger of getting it wrong, most of the time. And shifting household size has implications beyond communication. For instance, product development that trends towards larger, family-size packaging is maybe misguided in a world of shrinking households.

But there's a larger truth in the evolving landscape of the American household. We can no longer default to common but perhaps lazy formulations of the "mass consumer" or "general audience," because aggregations under these banners necessarily sand off likely profitable differences between audiences. Brands with clear, salient internal values and a sense of purpose will continue to attract consumers. We're truly moving into an era where successful brands will act as magnets, not mirrors for their consumers.

The good news is that we have many more tools at our disposal than Mr. Ogilvy did when he was writing print copy for his wife. There will always be a need for brands to stand for larger, cultural truths in broadcast media, but we now have sophisticated direct, digital and experiential arsenals to engage in multithreaded, hyper-relevant conversations with different types of consumers. Easy? No. Complex? Incredibly. Rife with new business opportunities and communications platforms? Definitely. We're helping our clients navigate this new world of multiple conversations. In fact, we're launching a process, the Evolving American Household Project, which is dedicated to enabling brand marketers to keep pace with this critically important and rapidly evolving arena for brand perception, usage and shopping. Ultimately, we hope to inspire the development of unique marketing platforms directed at discrete groups of consumers to supplement mainline marketing efforts.

Yes, your wife/husband/son/daughter might be a great target for your brand, but don't forget, they make up a small component of a larger truth. Get their input, but don't stop there. And get ready for an even bigger wake up call with the new Census findings this year.

Matt Herrmann is chief strategy officer at McCann West.
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