Who Do We Think We Are?

After all these years, why are we still patronising our audience?
“The consumer is not a moron; she is your wife” said David Ogilvy.

Of course if you watch Mad Men (and who doesn't?) you’ll realise that in the 1960’s, defining the consumer as the average woman was hardly a tribute to razor-sharp intelligence.

Yet just because ad men have (largely) stopped groping receptionists in the lifts, smoking continuously and offering alcohol at every meeting, don’t assume that anything’s fundamentally changed. Yes, attitudes to women have moved on a bit, but attitudes to ‘the consumer’, hardly at all.

A friend asked me the other day why so many ads are simplistic and patronising. I didn’t like to admit the truth, which is that many marketeers and ad people secretly believe that everyone else is stupid.

If proof were needed, I had a (not especially bright) brand manager tell me that the direness of his ads didn't matter because everyone who bought his product was (I quote) “a moron”. His product was good. I had, in fact, bought it myself. So why this extraordinary assumption?

Perhaps in his highly paid, graduate, master-of-the-universe role, and controlling a significant TV spend, he arrogantly believed that he was manipulating the bovine ‘masses’ and so, demonstrably, intellectually superior to them.

It’s an extreme example, but not unique. I've lost track of the meetings I’ve sat in where either clients or agency people say ”well of course I understand it, but the consumer won’t.” 

Because, of course, ‘we’ are cleverer than ‘them’.

So we continue to insult their intelligence with unfunny dialogue, homogenised Europeople simpering at smartphones, sexist stereotypes of useless men, poor dubbing, plainly fake voxpops, and hectoring, shouty prices and claims. 

And yes, I’ve done some of these myself.

We even communicate with highly educated groups like Doctors or CEO’s of companies as if they were an undifferentiated group with preset knee-jerk responses (‘Doctors like Golf, Photography and Travel….’ as I was once briefed). It’s laughable.

We seem to imagine that our interesting, relatively well-paid and stimulating jobs must be solely a result of our exceptionally brilliant minds.

Over the years I must have sat in hundreds of consumer groups and, although they can annoyingly discount ideas I’m in love with, I’m usually struck by their common sense and ad-literacy.

Offered sincerity, they respond gratefully, as we all do. Likewise to humour, and ‘cleverness’ and entertainment.

They hate being shouted at, or lectured, or patronised. They’ll let us have fun as long as the point we’re trying to make seems intelligible. They don’t mind working to ‘get’ it, as long as it rewards the effort and isn’t forced or irrelevant.

And they don’t need a degree to spot the weaselly  ‘From…’ before a price or ‘Can help…’ before a medical claim, or to be annoyed by lazy jargon like ‘In Branch’.

If you had asked my Brand Manager which ads he personally rated, he’d have named the clever, well-executed, funny ones, just as we all would. But, like that famous Victorian remark about sex being ‘too good for the servants’ his consumers weren’t considered worthy of a real effort at quality.

“So what?” he would argue, “They still buy the products we advertise.”

Sadly, I think they often buy decent products in spite of the ads. Their expectations of us are low anyway, so they simply make allowances for our habit of talking down to them, mentally filter out the relevant information and then decide.

Crucially, in today’s world they’ll talk to each other on social media, check product reviews on the internet, and force transparency when we don’t give it to them.  Brands that show them some respect are understandably preferred.

Now with marketing budgets increasingly squeezed, this mutual respect is more critical than ever. It’s been proven many times that ads that are ‘liked’ sell more products, by changing attitudes and behaviour and by creating a robust emotional link and long-term loyalty to the brand. But it’s hard to like someone who’s shouting in your face or treating you like a fool, so why, 40 years after David Ogilvy’s dictum are we still dangerously wasting all these costly opportunities to connect?

Odd, isn’t it, if we’re all so clever?

Maybe we should always speak to our audience as we ‘clever’ people would like to be spoken to. Ultimately there’s nothing more satisfying than producing work that really resonates, sells products and you’re also proud to be a part of.

Every time we waste our talent and money just making the consumer cross with us, who’s the ‘moron’? I think it’s us.

Pam Mason
Pam’s career began as a Graphic Designer and evolved to Art Director, Creative Director and Creative Planner via top 10 agencies and major clients like BA, Heinz, Cadbury’s, Olay, Reckitt Benckiser and L’Oreal.
For several years she’s been immersed in integrated healthcare communications from prescription medicines to nutrition and consumer health.
She’s a movie and theatre fanatic, and a ‘sponge’ for all sorts of trivia.