OPINION25 October 2018

Don’t let me be misunderstood

Media Opinion Trends UK

Market research is intrinsic to inclusion in society, says UM’s Michael Brown, as he shares findings from a year of examining the nature of stereotyping in the UK.

Paper chain targeting stereotypes_crop

For too long, advertising and market research have considered audiences in a way that is too simplistic. The loathsomely named HHWK – or housewives with kids – captures perfectly the absurdly blunt way in which audiences have historically been defined.

That anachronistic acronym originates from a time when media couldn’t be targeted closely. So what excuse have we to still be using this kind of terminology at a time when media can be hyper-targeted in a way that matches perfectly tailored messages with people?

It’s in the essence of this question that UM’s thought leadership initiative, UK by UM, first drew breath. The project’s mission is to understand real – rather than assumed – audiences. Along the way, we’ve discovered that the broad-brush treatment of audiences lends itself to stereotyping, that stereotypes are rife in our society, and that stereotypes can make people very unhappy.

We’ve been on a mission to use consumer research to understand the prevalence and nature of stereotyping in the UK. So far, we’ve studied various groups, including dads (our project’s inaugural chapter, Breaking Dad); female identity and queer audiences.

We believe that if all sections of society can be heard better, they can be understood better, leading to greater empathy and harmony in society, not to mention better crafted ads.

Another of our project’s core principles is that our findings should reach as broad an audience as possible, to cast as powerful a spotlight as possible on these issues. So whenever anyone requests to know more about our findings, we happily share them.

A year in to our project, here’s a handful of learnings we’ve made so far:

Market research is intrinsic to driving inclusion
Without quantifying the extent of stereotyping, it’s impossible to understand it. And when complex issues remain an amorphous blob that is not understood, they can’t be addressed.

Traditional methodologies can deliver powerful results
Our project has primarily been powered by large-scale surveys. These anonymous forums have been the perfect way to capture sentiments that can sometimes be delicate and sensitive.

Research with purpose unites people
We’ve had a tremendously warm reception from all parts of the industry. Our supply partners have often undertaken fieldwork at no cost. Competitors have supported us and offered to collaborate.

Haters gonna hate
While it’s exciting to deliver insights that challenge conventions and established structures, it can really bother people. At times, we’ve received very menacing feedback. We’ve learned to ignore it.

The sample pricing model needs to be reconsidered
Low-incidence fieldwork amongst minorities carries a cost premium. This can block projects that would give them a louder voice. Panels should reimagine this and put principles before profit.

We are lucky in our industry to be represented by the MRS, which promotes best practices towards identity measurement that are more progressive and authentic: for example, capturing non-binary gender identities by including ‘I define in a different way’ as a response option in gender questions.

Similarly, our latest project on queer identity, in partnership with YouGov, used the Kinsey scale (a 7-point scale) to demonstrate that around a quarter of UK society self-defines as not being 100% straight (twice as many amongst 18-24-year-olds). This is much higher than the ONS’s measure of 2% of the population being lesbian, gay or bisexual. The true queer community is likely much greater than previously imagined. Careful question crafting matters a great deal.

As for our project, we’ve a pipeline of outputs scheduled. Our next deep-dive, on lesbian and bisexual female identity, conducted in partnership with HER – the world’s primary meet-up app for this community – will be launched later this quarter. We look forward to sharing our findings.

Michael Brown is head of insight at media agency UM