How the UK advertising industry 'lost touch' with the public

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The advertising industry is locked in a Thatcher-era mindset, populated by narcissistic young professionals with an obsession for individualism and power, and out of touch with target audiences, a major piece of research has found.

The study, which could have significant implications for the future direction of advertising, compared the value systems and attitudes of advertising professionals with those of middle income people and found “fundamental psychological and behavioural differences” between the two groups. It identified a profound disconnect between adland and the “very people” it is “seeking to engage and influence”. The researchers say that the findings have “big psychological and, dare we say it, moral consequences”.

It found that ad workers and marketers value risk-taking and strong emotions, and wrongly assume that mainstream audiences are motivated by messages of hedonism and power, when really they value benevolence and universalism. Adland is also more likely than mainstream society to think an individual has responsibility for their own adverse life circumstances, such as a low income or job loss.

Despite these values, 48% of advertising professionals self-identify as “left wing” compared to 28% of people from the ‘modern mainstream’ (the middle 50% in household income, with annual earnings of between £20,000-£55,000). The research highlights the homogeneity of an overwhelmingly metropolitan-based sector in which 92% of workers voted Remain in the European Union referendum, 84% are under-40 (compared to 35% of UK adults) and a degree is an entry-level requirement.

Adland's 'unconscious bias'

The study was headed by Andrew Tenzer, head of group insight at Trinity Mirror Solutions (now part of the newly-named Reach news publishing stable that includes nine national newspapers, including the Daily Mirror and Daily Express, and 114 regional titles). He says his fellow advertising professionals have an “unconscious bias” against the stability-loving mainstream because of their own hunger for new experiences.

“It’s hard-wired, it’s fundamental, it’s driven by the way we see and experience the world,” he says. “[There is] a quite patronising, negative perception of the modern mainstream’s value systems. But just because someone doesn’t have the same political views as you, or the same outlook on life, that doesn’t mean you should disregard them and consider them to be not very nice people.”

The study was based on evidence from psychological tests, drawn from a survey of more than 2,400 adults from middle income households and 150 interviews with staff representing all of the UK’s major media agencies. It was co-authored by Ian Murray, co-founder and partner of the London-based research agency House51. It follows a related study from the publisher last year, titled ‘When Trust Falls Down’, which highlighted how the public – especially outside London – increasingly distrusts big consumer brands for being part of ‘the establishment’, alongside politicians and other elites.

Tenzer, who wrote his university dissertation on Margaret Thatcher, says that the advertising industry is so youthful that it is staffed almost exclusively by people with no experience of UK society before the watershed of the former Tory leader’s first election victory in 1979, which he says established a neoliberal consensus in British society and defined the approach of modern British advertising in appealing to individuals rather than universal values.

“If you populate your industry with people under the age of 40 they literally haven’t experienced a world before the Thatcherite approach that has existed since 1979 and I think a lot of great advertising was built by people who experienced a pre-1979 world, which is why that advertising is so successful,” he says. “You want to hire the best people and it’s good to have young people but there are consequences to just having a certain age demographic populating the industry.”

So-called ‘golden era’ advertising campaigns from the 1970s, which often ran over years and benefited from mass media audiences, still perform well in favourite ad polls among the public.

“Some of the great advertising campaigns have run for 20 years but we live in a very instant culture now where everything is short term and you have one campaign and three months later change it to a different one,” says Tenzer. “That’s coming more from [the advertising industry’s] psychological need than people out there in the real world.”

Ads 'no longer shaping culture'

The new study of the ad industry notes that “where advertising once led the cultural conversation, it is no longer deemed to be a significant aspect of popular culture”. It concludes that if the industry’s unconscious bias continues to repel audiences “the chasm is only going to get larger, until the modern mainstream won’t be able to hear us anymore”.

The work, titled ‘Why We Shouldn’t Trust Our Gut Instinct’, concludes that “individualistic values and thinking styles drive the core assumptions of contemporary advertising and its fundamental (mis)understanding of human behaviour. The result is advertising that is obsessed with personalisation and the expression of individual identity, where even the most mundane products are sold as routes to self-actualisation and signifiers of personal achievement and status.”

Tenzer’s research has been heavily influenced by the work of the former Prospect magazine editor David Goodhart who, in his book ‘The Road to Somewhere’, identified two British tribes; the elite ‘Anywheres’ who are mobile and global looking and have come to dominate culture and society, and the ‘Somewheres’, a much larger mainstream demographic that values social norms and continuity and is more likely to live close to family roots. Goodhart suggests that the Brexit vote was a protest by the Somewheres. Tenzer believes that advertising is comprised almost exclusively of Anywheres, and says he is one himself.

His study draws on new findings in consumer psychology and suggests that, while middle income people generally take a ‘holistic’ approach to thinking, with emphasis on community and social relations, the advertising industry encourages ‘analytical’ thinking which focuses on the individual. “If you go to a media agency’s website and look at all their jobs the majority will say we want analytical thinkers. The same with the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) website, it specifically mentions that you need to be an analytical thinker.”

This single approach has created “a bit of a wedge” for the industry in reaching out to a public with a different way of thinking, he claims.

A boon for traditional media?

For the Reach (formerly Trinity Mirror) stable there is a vested interest in the advertising industry reducing its obsession with chasing the attentions of the young, the trendy and the new – what the author Nassim Taleb has dubbed “neomania”. It hopes the industry might focus less on programmatic ad spending targeted at individuals and instead spend more on campaigns aimed at mass audiences on media platforms such as the ones it owns. “Don’t assume people are bored of established media,” is one of the study’s key findings, a warning to agencies that endorse “unproven media platforms” because they wish to be associated with “the shiny and new”.

Any such change in adland thinking – including a greater recognition that context is important to advertising effectiveness – could benefit all traditional media, and news businesses especially, by reducing the current appetite for programmatic campaigns.

Since acquiring Express Newspapers from Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell earlier this year, Reach has had greater reason to wish that advertising would turn its attentions away from young urban influencers and spend more money on traditional routes to engaging mainstream audiences. The publisher’s portfolio is, more than ever, defined not by a single editorial stance but offers a uniquely broad mix of political allegiances and regional coverage.

“The point is we reach everyone from either end of the political spectrum,” says Tenzer. "I think that’s a good thing. We are open to all views and don’t have a patronising view of our readers regardless of what title they are reading.”

Naturally, he thinks advertising agencies in general should be similarly open-minded.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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