The UK advertising industry is still trapped in an eighties mentality, assuming that consumers are twenty-three year old London yuppies eager for novel consumptive experiences. In terms of age (under 40), location (London and South East), attitudes (‘left-wing’ and individualist), education (graduate or post-graduate), British advertising professionals are hopelessly out of touch with the audiences they are trying to reach. So says a major study headed by Adam Tenzer, head of Group Insight at Trinity Mirror Solutions.
Tenzer, who wrote his university dissertation on Margaret Thatcher, says that the advertising industry is so youthful that it is staffed almost exclusively by people with no experience of UK society before the watershed of the former Tory leader’s first election victory in 1979, which he says established a neoliberal consensus in British society and defined the approach of modern British advertising in appealing to individuals rather than universal values. Proof of these weighty assertions may be found in the so-called ‘golden era’ advertising campaigns from the 1970s. These still perform well in favourite ad polls among the public.
“If you populate your industry with people under the age of 40 they literally haven’t experienced a world before the Thatcherite approach that has existed since 1979 and I think a lot of great advertising was built by people who experienced a pre-1979 world, which is why that advertising is so successful,” Tenzer says.
Perhaps for these reasons, British advertising no longer leads the cultural conversation as it did in the 70’s and 80’s. The values it embodies are simply too outlandish and back-dated, too mired in the fixations of unrepresentative elites. Tenzer warns that advertising risks lapsing into complete marginalisation unless it corrects its current course.
The study, titled ‘Why We Shouldn’t Trust Our Gut Instinct’, concludes that “individualistic values and thinking styles drive the core assumptions of contemporary advertising and its fundamental (mis)understanding of human behaviour. The result is advertising that is obsessed with personalisation and the expression of individual identity, where even the most mundane products are sold as routes to self-actualisation and signifiers of personal achievement and status.”
Tenzer’s research was influenced by the work of David Goodhart who, in his book ‘The Road to Somewhere’, identified two British tribes; the elite ‘Anywheres’ who are mobile and global looking and have come to dominate cultural life, and the ‘Somewheres’, a much larger mainstream demographic that values conformity and continuity. Goodhart suggests that the Brexit vote was a protest by the Somewheres. Tenzer believes that advertising is comprised almost exclusively of Anywheres, which raises questions about its long-term effectiveness.
“Don’t assume people are bored of established media,” is one of the study’s key findings, a warning to agencies that endorse “unproven media platforms” because they wish to be associated with “the shiny and new”. The false assumption that ‘everyone’ uses social media is not exclusive to Britain. A study of the Australian advertising industry showed that advertising professionals massively exaggerated the importance of Facebook and Twitter, overestimating public use of these technologies by over 200%.
What is the solution? If advertising can shed its idiomatic fixation on ‘youth’ and ‘novelty’, it can regain its prestigious role in the cultural conversation. If it does not, it risks losing all power of influence and persuasion. Perhaps employing people from more demographically representative backgrounds would be a good start.
(Back to Writing Samples)