FEATURE23 December 2019

Common values

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The advertising and marketing industry is different from the general population at a moral values level, according to new research. Katie McQuater looks at what this means for businesses


After the Brexit vote in 2016, the political and media establishment reacted with surprise and shock when 52% of the public called the political elite’s bluff, defied the polls and, ultimately, highlighted how false assumptions can lead us to a false sense of security.

While the outcome, along with the election of Donald Trump as US president a few months later, prompted soul-searching from many, it was a stark reminder of the need to get out of our own filter bubbles.

In the context of media and marketing, some have pledged to conduct more research to address this, with one ad agency even launching an initiative to ‘go into the wild’ to talk to ‘real people’. However, according to a new study from newspaper group Reach (formerly Trinity Mirror) and research agency House51, the issue runs deeper than geography. Their research has highlighted how the advertising and marketing industry actually differs on certain fundamental moral values compared with the mainstream population.

The study builds on previous research from the two companies, which highlighted the different ‘thinking styles’ of those in the media industry compared to the overall population. That work, released last year, served as the precursor for this year’s research, which has explored the issue further. It has drawn on a framework of five moral foundations developed by US social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to explore the differences between people working in the marketing industry and the general public.

Surveying the two groups – UK adults defined as ‘the modern mainstream’ or the middle 50% in terms of household income, and advertising and marketing professionals – the research found that they placed equal importance on individualising ethics: care/harm and fairness/reciprocity.

However, the industry group found the three binding ethics – in-group loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity – significantly less important than the public; a third ( 33%) of the mainstream group agreed that in-group loyalty is relevant when deciding something is right or wrong, compared with 18% of the industry group. The differences were also clear when it came to agreeing whether authority/respect and purity/sanctity are relevant when deciding if something is right or wrong.

“We live in a western democracy, so we all believe in rights and individual freedoms – those two out of the five foundations are covered. But a lot of people out there in the real world value a lot of other things, and a lot of people in marketing just don’t see,” says Ian Murray, co-founder and partner at House51. “If you’re in a bubble, you’re seeing the world through that lens. It’s what we all do – that’s why we took the angle on morality.”

Additionally, drawing on a trait empathy scale, the research found no greater propensity towards empathy within the industry group – 30% of marketers displayed high levels of perspective taking and affective empathy, compared with 29% of the mainstream group.

“The majority of businesses are, or should be, customer-centric. This [research] contributes to the overwhelming evidence of how out of touch people are with their customers and their audiences,” says Andrew Tenzer, director of group insight at Reach.

“The problem is, we’re not living in normal times. Because things are so divided and tribal – and there is this lack of understanding of alternative points of view – whether we like it or not, we are, unconsciously, led to have quite a negative opinion of huge swathes of the population. Although we would like to say that we don’t let that impact us, the reality is quite different.”

Diverse structures

Is conducting more research the answer? Potentially – but only if it leads to meaningful insight. “If you’re investing in research, but not interpreting, understanding and empathising, then it’s money down the drain,” says Tenzer. “Insight without skill is just research. True insight comes from people who can interpret and understand the audience they are researching.”

Market researchers are not exempt from these cultural assumptions. With the caveat that the research drew quite a small sample of marketing professionals who broadly fit into the research function, the study found that they didn’t score any higher on empathy than those with other marketing roles, says Murray.

“Just as we’re saying to the marketers ‘you need to embrace a bigger issue here’, market researchers have to as well,” he adds. “We can have as many new technologies as we like, but if we’re going to push the same biased cultural assumptions through, we’re not going to get the right answer.”

Structuring businesses to be more diverse is key to addressing the values gap highlighted by this research. While businesses recognise the importance of shared cultural values, recruiting for culture fit risks supporting the status quo and places too much emphasis on the ‘in group’ – that is, the agency and its values, rather than the ‘out group’ (the mainstream), according to the study.

So, businesses should build more diverse teams and think of divergence not just in terms of race and gender, but in terms of demographic, cultural and cognitive diversity.

Trying to solve the issue solely by using unconscious bias training is failing to see the bigger picture, says Tenzer. “Sending someone on a course for one day is not going to make that much difference. The only way to truly attempt to overcome your biases is to be surrounded by people who have different biases from you.

“The problem with the marketing and advertising industry is that we’re a homogeneous group of people who are largely quite different from everybody else. There isn’t really anyone there to challenge our biases. The larger issue is the structural make-up of most of the marketing and media industry.”

Murray agrees that more diversity is the only way to address the differences in values. “The solution that people took from our research last year was still London-centric; it was like ‘OK, we’re being lazy; we can get out more. Then we will just intuitively understand people.’ You won’t – it’s much deeper than that. The only way it’s going to work is if the business is an aggregate of a much wider range of perspectives. No single human is going to be able to put themselves in the shoes of all these diverse groups of people.”

moral foundations

Individualising: focused on welfare/the rights of individuals
● Care/harm: caring, kindness
● Fairness/reciprocity: justice, trustworthiness

Binding: ethics of community
● In-group loyalty: group pride, self-sacrifice
● Authority/respect: obedience, deference
● Purity/sanctity: chastity, piety, cleanliness

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of Impact.


The white paper ‘The Empathy Delusion’ can be downloaded at reachsolutions.co.uk/insights. The quantitative survey of 2,019 nationally representative UK adults and 199 advertising and marketing professionals was conducted in March 2019. Figures quoted relate to the differences between the advertising and marketing industry and the ‘modern mainstream’ (n=1,063 ), defined as the middle 50% of household income (£20k-£55k).