Media Measurement Marketing Planning

Planners need to stop misdefining working-class with ‘archaic’ socioeconomic grading


By Rob McLaren, Insight executive

April 29, 2024 | 8 min read

The7Stars’s Rob McLaren believes media agencies are shooting themselves in the foot by relying on an outdated way of categorizing households.

Households valued by salary of head

We in adland are out of touch with the wider public. Perhaps the most pertinent example is our continued use of National Social Grade, or SEG, as a proxy for determining which audiences ‘fit’ with which brands.

While SEG has been revised many times over the years, its core assumption remains rooted in the 1950s belief that the occupation of the head of household strongly indicates the family’s social status and disposable income.

As someone who landed in the media industry relatively recently and comes from a working-class family, I can remember being shocked by just how commonplace this crude and archaic grading system is for buying and serving media in the UK.

Try explaining to your parents that your new job involves bombarding them with low-end price promotions, while ensuring we don’t waste impressions by serving them ads for luxury items that simply won’t appeal to ‘their kind’. That’s before we even get started on the industry’s laughable portrayal of the working classes and the continued use of class stereotypes as outlined in Channel 4’s recent TV audit ‘Mirror on Class.’

Not only is the notion of assigning individuals with a social ranking highly offensive but its efficacy as a measurement tool has also long since evaporated. From the erosion of traditional industries to diminishing public sector pay, there has been a marked change in the British workforce from when the majority of adults were classed as C2DE.

There remains a clear disconnect between the official classifications – SEG – and how Brits choose to identify. The government’s own social mobility barometer notes that around half the public consider themselves working-class – even though many of those are working office-based ABC1 careers.

The7Stars conducted a comprehensive study to understand the relevance of social grade and class identification in modern Britain and the effect on the propensity to spend. The Misdefined Majority explores the values and motivations of the British public and provides clear insights and approaches for identifying audiences and for reconnecting with working-class audiences.

Opportunity in the misdefined majority

According to The7Stars research, some 22.9 million adults in the UK associate their upbringing with a working-class background – with more than 6 million not identifying with any class at all.

At first glance, this group appears to have a lower spending power, with a self-reported £200 average disposable monthly income, compared with £500 for the middle classes. Unsurprisingly, this translates into a higher proportion of income spent on everyday essentials.

Yet, to discard the spending power of working-class audiences is to ignore an enormous opportunity. Despite the cost of living crisis squeezing household budgets, the notion that they won’t spend on small luxuries is simply a myth.

The majority of working-class people we surveyed indicated an intention to spend money on technology, clothes, entertainment, and holidays in the coming months. While the C2DE grouping has historically been used interchangeably with the working class, it also includes the more than 11 million retirees living in the UK who reported an above-average disposable income of £400 per month.

Additionally, as inflation levels continue to rise and mortgage levels surge, middle-income households are also feeling the pinch in spending power, with their real incomes falling by around 6.2%, or £1,077 per year, in 2023-24, according to NIESR.

With SEG, we systematically misdefine the population in a way that doesn’t reflect their self-perception. This creates an opening for brands willing to foster more meaningful connections by using more refined, granular, and behavioral-based data.

Connecting with working-class audiences

Having long been sidelined by outdated targeting, fewer than one in 10 working-class individuals believe the typical media portrayal of their class is correct. Indeed, when asked what media accurately depicts their culture outside of soap operas, working-class audiences struggled to provide examples of where they felt seen.

Amid this vacuum of inaccurate representation, media can play a pivotal role in rewriting the narrative. But to do so will require brands to understand the values and motivations of these under-represented communities.

It is commonly inferred that social mobility is the ultimate end goal for working-class people, as if all ambitions in life are superseded by a desire to stick to the man and climb the career ladder. While this narrative influences our view of the world, how we structure our lives is notably different.

Our research into working-class audiences showed that when asked to define what makes a person successful, 41% chose their career; yet, when prompted on their own goals, just 26% said forging a successful career – with building a solid family unit by far the nation’s main ambition.

In the face of economic disparities, working-class communities thrive upon their shared values of family, honesty, and compassion. For media to truly represent the country at large, it must recognize and celebrate what makes these communities tick. But it’s not just about getting more customers through the door.

Media itself has a class problem. Industry figures, including Reach’s Jenny Shevlin, have spoken powerfully about the impact of class prejudice on their early careers. Despite progress in recent years, adland remains a far cry from the population it seeks to persuade.

For the advertising industry, removing the barrier of social grade is not about adding an extra digit to the bottom line – it will show the nation that advertising can be a force for change.

Reframing media targeting beyond SEG

As outlined in Channel 4’s excellent Mirror On report, in the absence of specifics, SEG-based targeting becomes prone to relying on stereotypes.

It doesn’t have to – and it shouldn’t – be this way. Media planners and buyers are blessed with the tools to slice and dice the British public in every way imaginable. All industry-standard media planning tools, including TGI and GWI, contain years of data on everything from comfort on income to psychographics.

To move beyond a system so firmly rooted in British culture, requires the determination to go against the grain. Here are four key takeaways for brands to target audiences in a more inclusive way:

  • Dial down the demographics: While demographic data will continue to underpin media campaigns, it should not be used as a blunt tool to segment the population. Taking a people-first, multi-layered approach to targeting will shed more light on how Brits choose to spend their hard-earned cash.

  • Think affordability, not social grade: SEG is horribly out of step with how the population views itself. By reframing the focus on affordability – using measures such as disposable income for audience targeting – brands can more accurately target the right customers at the right time.

  • There’s value in the values: Communities define themselves on their values, with family and compassion trumping traditional class structures. Incorporating these attitudinal mindsets into audiences will ensure brands target customers who truly align with their values.

  • Don’t exclude the misdefined majority: Working-class audiences are too often left out of plans with broad strokes or squeezed into stereotypes when not. Media that embraces and reflects working-class communities will gain increased sentiment.

The7Stars, in partnership with PureSpectrum, conducted an online quantitative study of 2,004 UK adults in June 2023. The full whitepaper can be accessed here.

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