New McCann Latin Unit Broaches a Question: Is It Right to Target the Poor?

Agency Called Barrio Established Just in Time for Global Recession

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For many obvious reasons, marketers don't openly talk much about segmenting their consumers by economic class unless, of course, they're talking about the affluent. Identifying a person as rich isn't a particularly touchy matter. Not like when you're calling someone poor and then trying to figure how best to shove more product his or her way. But that's exactly what McCann Worldgroup is doing with a new unit called Barrio, whose mission will be to help massive marketers like Nestle and SABMiller understand the poor in Latin America.

The announcement of the new unit comes on the heels of a large research project that's already yielded a couple of insights that have been translated into programs. For SABMiller's Panamanian beer brand Atlas, McCann is running a contest that will allow winners to guest broadcast during a baseball game. The contest reflects the Warholian insight that Panamanians want a few minutes of fame.

Because this is the advertising business, there has to be a bit of corporate playacting and Barrio can do that, apparently. Among its offerings is the ability to ghetto up otherwise cushy environs so suits can see how the other half lives. In an article today, the Wall Street Journal describes how in McCann's Bogota outpost chickens have been let loose to peck around the feet of clients. Clients in Mexico City ate tacos off of plastic mats in a room designed to look like a bodega. Ah, the desperation ... you can almost smell it.

As to the ethical dilemma, the article is generally free of critical wrestling with the issue, noting only that the approach may "raise some eyebrows." The piece pretty much nets out where Luca Lindner, head of McCann's Latin American operations, does, which is with the conclusion that bringing deodorant and packaged food to the poor will help them both in physical and psychological terms. As Mr. Linder was quoted, "We do not pretend to be Mother Teresa."

No doubt, but how Barrio weighs in on the moral scale is sure to be determined by whether it actually helps marketers create products that increase that well-being. Market research on the poor is lacking. But good research and compassionate thinking about product development, which doesn't necessarily involve rich executives partaking in incredibly contrived exercises in acting like the poor, should be used to create affordable, necessary things. That will help increase the well-being Mr. Lindner mentions, rather than just help big companies pad their margins by finding ways to squeeze a few extra pesos out of their consumers -- something that will be especially tempting now that the era of mass affluence seems to have come to a crashing end.

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