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In advertising, the term "demographics" refers to information describing the characteristics of consumers or target audiences. (In the larger sense, demographics is the social science that studies human populations, their size, geographic and age distribution, birth and death rates and related factors.)

Such information is crucial to the success of advertising. In what is now considered a classic work—"Defining Advertising Goals for Measured Advertising Results" (now simply referred to as DAGMAR)—Russell Colley stated that for advertising to be effective, the advertiser needs to know the number of people who constitute the present and potential markets and complete information about these people, which is needed to communicate with them in terms of their particular needs, desires and interests.

Marketers and advertisers generally describe the consumers of their products or services by using three broad types of analysis: psychographic, geographic and demographic.

Demographic data

Of the three types of consumer information, demographic data are the most easily quantifiable and most readily available. Demographic data usually include age, gender, income, marital status and family size, race, education and occupation.

  • Age: Because age determines generation—and each generation shares a body of common life experience and cultural influences distinct from those of other generations—age is considered to be the most fundamental of all demographic criteria.

  • Gender: Men and women have different media consumption habits and different buying behaviors. Traditionally, women have been the target of more advertising than men because they are more often the purchasers of products, especially consumer goods.

  • Income: Consumer income is a strong determinant of buying behavior, affecting what type of goods may interest particular consumers, how much they can afford and which media they use.

  • Marital status and family size: Single individuals have different needs and interests than do married couples. Information on marital status and family size is relatively easy to obtain.

  • Race: Many advertisers regard demographic data on racial differences to be prejudicial by its very nature; others consider it to be useful in better understanding their target audiences. Certainly, cultural differences are strong determinants of consumer behavior and attitudes.

  • Education: In highly developed societies, such as the U.S., Western Europe and Japan, educational data, generally readily available by country, are available by consumer segments and even individually, so that direct marketers can mail their ads only to people with an education above or below a certain level.

  • Occupation: For some widely used products and services, occupation may be unimportant information. For other market situations—selling aircraft to pilots, for example, or accounting software to accountants—it can be crucial information.

After all this information is compiled for the consumers of a specific product or service, it may be developed into a demographic profile of the target audience. These profiles often become the basis for how advertisers present particular individuals in print ads and TV spots, thus helping to generate a base of social stereotypes through which people come to see themselves and others.

Uses and limitations

In the 1980s and '90s, advertisers acquired the technology to look more deeply into their data and came—or were forced—to recognize subtle distinctions within group stereotypes. This growing consciousness of diversity has greatly expanded the range of acceptable social representations in advertising while at the same time exposing the limited insights available through data based purely on demographics.

Although still widely used, many categories of demographic information are too general to be very meaningful to marketers when used alone. Without psychographic and geographic data, a demographic analysis alone may be misleading, and advertisers are best advised to consider all three types of information.

Demographic data are available from many sources: governments, private research firms, marketers, the media and scholars. Broadcast media are particularly useful as sources of demographic information on their audiences. Private research companies in the U.S., such as Arbitron and ACNielsen Corp., are paid by TV and radio stations to supply very specific and current demographic data about their audiences.

Magazines supply detailed demographic studies of their readership to potential buyers of advertising, as do large newspapers. Most local newspapers rely on circulation and household data, with little demographic information available.

For other media, such as outdoor advertising, demographic information is very difficult to obtain and usually not available. For the Internet, consumer information is readily available if individuals are willing to share it as they log onto specific Internet sites.

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