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The Problematic Obsession with Britain’s Middle Class in Advertising

Last year, Saatchi & Saatchi stirred the advertising world with their provocative question: “What the fuck is going on in the UK?” This year, they claim to continue their quest for answers by focusing on Britain’s middle class, whom they deem overlooked and essential for every marketer to obsess over. On June 26th, Chief Strategy Officer Richard Huntington and a panel of special guests will delve into this demographic, backed by exclusive new research. However, this narrative is inherently problematic, revealing deep-seated issues within the advertising industry’s approach to diversity and representation.

Saatchi & Saatchi’s position epitomizes the industry’s long-standing fixation on the middle class, particularly those aged 18 to 34. This obsession results in advertisements that fail to reflect the genuine diversity of society, instead mirroring the marketing industry’s own demographic makeup. The reality is that society is an eclectic mix of people from various backgrounds, encompassing different races, ethnicities, ages, genders, and classes. Yet, a survey of 2,000 UK adults found that 62% are concerned TV ads predominantly portray wealthy homes, and 63% believe the poor are negatively stereotyped in advertising. A third of Brits think public perceptions of the poor have worsened over the past three years, with more than half attributing this to media coverage.

In the US, the situation is similarly dismal. Low-income consumers represent only 3.4% of individuals in mass-circulation print ads, despite making up 20% of the population. Over a 70-year sample, 58.2% of people portrayed in ads were identified as middle-class, though they constitute roughly a third of the population. This disparity underscores the lack of cognitive diversity in advertising, as ads overwhelmingly depict the middle class while neglecting the working class and lower-income individuals.

Working-class characters featured in only 11% of ads in a 70-year sample, dropping to a mere 4.2% in 2010. This underrepresentation is compounded by the skewed portrayal of these characters, who are often shown only in professional roles, reinforcing stereotypes. The upper class, meanwhile, is overrepresented, featuring in 13.1% of ads despite constituting just 6.1% of the population.

This trend leads to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes. The study found a shift towards nostalgic, stereotyped representations of the working class, reminiscent of the post-World War II period. Working-class characters are often depicted in outdated or overly romanticized roles, detached from their actual occupations and contemporary realities.

To combat these issues, advertisers must adopt frameworks that remove harmful stereotypes. Diageo’s objective analysis of past work is a step in the right direction, identifying visual categories that perpetuate negative class-based stereotypes. These include “The Deserving Poor,” “Separate Spheres,” and “Occupation,” all of which reinforce harmful class hierarchies. By contrast, the middle class is often portrayed as enjoying “Domestic Idylls,” while the upper-middle class is depicted through “Consumption Voyeurism.”

Reducing people to tropes and stereotypes results in ineffective advertising. Data-driven approaches can help peel back the layers of unconscious bias in advertising, promoting cognitive diversity. People from different socioeconomic backgrounds value different things and see the world through varied lenses, making it crucial for advertisers to understand these perspectives.

Ian Murray aptly notes, “We are no better at understanding other people’s emotions and perspectives than the mainstream. This represents a major problem for an industry whose very success depends on a detailed and thorough understanding of the people it seeks to influence.” Thus, class diversity and inclusion remain advertising’s biggest blind spots.

Two potential solutions emerge: performing a historical analysis of past advertising to create an objective framework identifying unconscious bias, or committing to extensive fieldwork to gather first-hand data on the lives of real people, as seen in Ogilvy’s “get out there” program.

The lack of ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender diversity in the industry exacerbates these issues. The 2020 Career and Salary Survey highlights the overwhelming white, middle-class, and male composition of the marketing sector. Despite a significant female presence at entry levels, their representation diminishes in senior roles. Furthermore, marketers from upper middle-class backgrounds disproportionately occupy senior positions, while those from working-class backgrounds feel less confident in their ability to influence change.

This imbalance extends to the routes into marketing careers and the geographical distribution of roles, revealing a pronounced London bias. Addressing these disparities requires a concerted effort to promote diversity and inclusion across all levels of the industry.

In conclusion, Saatchi & Saatchi’s focus on the middle class perpetuates a problematic narrative that overlooks the true diversity of society. By continuing to target this demographic, the advertising industry fails to address its own biases and the pressing need for inclusive representation. To create meaningful change, advertisers must embrace cognitive diversity, challenge stereotypes, and commit to understanding the varied perspectives of all societal groups. Only then can advertising truly reflect the rich tapestry of our world.

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