Marketers need to accept they are no more empathetic than anyone else

Marketers may like to be believe they can identify with a wide range of people but, in reality, they are as likely to be led by their biases as anyone else.

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Several years ago I met with some media agency strategy directors to discuss their supermarket client. During our discussion, they continuously referred to the client as ‘the Brexit supermarket’, and weren’t exactly complementary about it’s target customer.

The irony was that just a few weeks earlier, the same agency had just launched a new planning process that explicitly placed empathy at the heart of it.

Around that time, Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump had the marketing and advertising industries breaking into a cold sweat. All of a sudden, you couldn’t go five minutes without industry figureheads proclaiming empathy being the answer to reconnecting with ordinary people. The message was that maybe we have slightly lost touch with a large proportion of the population, but we’ll don our capes, dial up our empathy superpowers and all will be okay.

Marketing is hindered by its individualistic, neoliberal worldviewAs demonstrated by the ‘Brexit supermarket’ discussion (and other instances), I was experiencing the very opposite of empathy. I had come to the conclusion that marketers lack the capacity to be empathetic to people who might have a different worldview to themselves. So back in 2019, my business partner Ian Murray and I decided to put this to the test by adapting an experiment from behavioural science called the dictator game.

We asked marketers and a nationally representative sample of UK adults to imagine they were paired with an anonymous partner, and that they had been given £50 to share between themselves. The respondent gets to decide how much of the money they want to keep for themselves, and how much (if any) they want to give to the person they’ve been paired with. We found that 69% of marketers were willing to offer an equal share (£25). That was significantly lower than our all-adult sample which stood at 77%.

There is rich academic literature that uses the dictator game to explore political polarisation and the impact of identity on people’s social preferences. In a nutshell, there is strong evidence that people depart from the fairness default when they are asked to play the game with someone who has a different identity or perceived set of values or beliefs.

There is a persistent belief in the industry that we have stronger empathy and we’re trained to overcome our biases. It turns out that we’re more likely to be driven by these biases than the general population!

So we decided to explore what would happen if we introduced two additional variables in our game. Firstly, we told them the other person voted remain in the EU referendum. Those marketers willing to share 50/50 (£25) rose to 82% from the 69% identity neutral benchmark. Social scientists refer to this positive shift as ‘in-group love’.

We then told the marketers that they were playing with someone who voted leave in the EU referendum. Here we saw a dramatic impact on willingness to share. Just 43% of marketers were willing to share 50/50 with a ‘leaver’. This represents a staggering drop of 39 percentage points.

This departure from the fairness norm is a clear sign of a tendency to punish or discriminate against those holding opposing beliefs. I’m confident that if we repeated this with a current polarising issue, we’d see a similar pattern.

When I’ve presented this data in the past, the first question is ‘what about the UK adult sample’? We did see a similar pattern, but the drop was less pronounced at 31 percentage points. Let’s be clear, there is a persistent belief in the industry that we have stronger empathy and we’re trained to overcome our biases. It turns out that we’re more likely to be driven by these biases than the general population. It’s not really all that surprising though. After all, we’re only human. We’re just as likely to be strongly influenced by intuition and herd behaviour.

This was just one of many of our experiments which showed that marketers have no special aptitude for empathy. That hasn’t stopped the empathy train though. Empathy this, empathy that. Recently I saw a company declare they do ‘Ad testing with empathy’. Talk about meaningless buzzwords.

The industry has hollowed out the meaning of empathy to the point where I think we should bin it. It’s just not credible. Marketers aren’t good at it, and there is a strong case that we shouldn’t be doing empathy at all.

Authenticity should start with marketers not marketingIn his book, Against Empathy, Paul Bloom (professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale) argues that empathy has major design flaws as a model for decision making. Bloom states that empathy is an irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices and encourages us to take shortcuts towards familiar and accessible feelings, values and beliefs.

Essentially, empathy biases us to care more about our in-groups. Contrary to what industry thought leaders tell you, this makes it extremely difficult to put ourselves into the shoes of those who are in the out-groups. I think our experiment, and my real world experience in the marketing industry highlight this perfectly.

So what can we replace empathy with? I prefer to use the term ‘perspective taking’. It’s different to empathy because it’s a rational (not emotional) process focused on the act of perceiving a situation or understanding a concept from a particular point of view. We can improve our capacity for perspective taking by expanding our knowledge of alternative contexts and worldviews and building our ability to critically examine our own emotions, values and beliefs. Most importantly, we need the motivation to do it because it won’t work if we rely on emotion and our own heuristic shortcuts.

It’s not about ‘I feel what you feel’, it’s about ‘I am here, but I understand why you are there’. I think this would not only help us to better understand our target customers, but would also be a good antidote to the highly polarised world we live in.

Andrew Tenzer is co-founder of Burst Your Bubble.


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