‘Empathy delusion’: are we at all like the people we are targeting?

‘Empathy delusion’: are we at all like the people we are targeting?
Opinion: Strategy Leaders

Changes to this year’s Consumer Price Index should remind us to temper own excitable interest in the outlier with respect for the average.

The UK advertising industry’s annual empathy challenge has dropped. Yes, the yearly compositional change to the basket of goods that forms the basis of the ONS’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) — our headline rate of inflation — has been announced. And with it, your opportunity to remind yourself quite how different you may be from the audiences you plan, buy or indeed serve.

This year’s changes are freighted with unusual significance, perhaps, given that the past year has given sudden rise to the kind of price inflation we thought we had left behind us long ago.  As everyone is horribly aware, after twenty years gyrating happily in the 0-5% range, the CPI — now the favoured inflationary benchmark — spiked recently above 10%.

The ’empathy delusion’

But it’s the composition of the basket, rather than its current level, that detains us here. Every month the ONS takes 180,000 price readings across 730 ‘representative goods and services’, goods and services that — by definition — remind us what ‘middle England’ is spending its money on and — equally critically — how slow the journey is towards the mainstream for the stuff that the media industry already takes for granted.

Last year, for example, saw the addition of meat-free sausages and sports bras to the basket and the removal from it of men’s suits and… coal. To a liberal, urban and above all youthful media industry those changes may look bizarrely belated, but the whole point of the changes is they move at the speed of the average consumer (or, in the case of coal, the speed of legislative change).

The difference between the media habits of industry practitioners and the person on the Clapham Omnibus has been well-documented, but the banality of the ONS basket reminds us that this gap is in fact a more general phenomenon. Most times, we aren’t the people we are targeting… and they aren’t who we think they are either.  The ‘empathy delusion’ is real.

Set metropolitan disdain aside

So how about this year? What might we need to add to the basket to correct and cost our monthly read of the nation’s consumption? A quick glance at search trends suggests we need to make room in our basket for CBD drinks, migraine hats, wearable devices, bamboo pyjamas, weighted blankets, padel and pickleball equipment, period underwear and breathable mesh running shoes. Alas, no: their grip on the mainstream remains some time away, if ever.

A little more realistically, surely it’s time to include oat milk, air fryers, athleisure wear, yoga mats, wireless earbuds and reusable bottles? (Because what self-respecting media practitioner doesn’t have some or all of that list sitting on or near his or her desk?) But no.

In fact, the only material additions to this year’s representative basket of goods and services (my italics) are e-bikes, ‘video doorbells’ and frozen berries.

Each of these decisions — slow-moving or even overdue as they may seem — have something to tell us, but only if we can set any metropolitan disdain aside. The removal of men’s suits from the basket, for example, was a consequence not just of the long-running trend to more casual workwear but also of the sudden increase in working from home and the accelerated collapse of the department store.

But putting specifics to one side, it’s the overall lesson that’s the most important one for us to learn. In short: to be wary of supposing our own consumption habits are shared by others (and even by our own age cohort) and of projecting these onto our ‘understanding’ of our client’s audience, and sometimes even of our client.

Perhaps we should all hang a copy of Saul Steinberg’s “View of the World from Ninth Avenue” cartoon by our desks as an everyday corrective to our casual assumption that the world is as we see it, rather than as it is?

A twin-speed gearbox

In much the same way as creative agencies’ appetite for change must sometimes be stilled while the audience catches up, media folk need to make sure they temper their own excitable interest in the outlier with respect for the average. A twin-speed gearbox is required to make sure we arrive at our beliefs and recommendations on the basis of proof rather than just what we find attractive.

It’s good to look round the corner, of course, and it may well be commercially and culturally advantageous (as well as cooler) to skate where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. But at the same time, we need to hitch our enthusiasm for the latest and the newest to a broader understanding of the status quo, because to over-extrapolate trends is as dangerous as being blind to them altogether.

If the trend data was right all along, after all, men would be doing the majority of the housework by now.

Laurence Green is one of the UK’s most renowned advertising strategists and creative leaders. He was co-founder of the agencies Fallon London and 101. He is now an independent adviser to creative businesses and writes monthly for The Media Leader.

Strategy Leaders: The Media Leader‘s weekly bulletin with thought leadership, news and analysis dedicated to excellence in commercial media strategy.
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