Human-First Media Metrics Require We Rethink the Role of Demographics

When’s the last time you saw a media or advertising plan that didn’t define the target ­– first and foremost – by their demographics?

It’s time we addressed a reality: grounding any plan with a demo means we’re assuming and ascribing like-qualities for a vast group of people, and whatever our intent, this over-generalization is fundamentally inequitable.

If this reality check feels pervasive and widespread in its impact… well, it is. Especially in light of how, as advertisers, we’ve become more focused on reducing bias, insensitivity and discrimination in the ads that we make and consume. (Think back to the backlash to Peleton and Pepsi ads in recent years.) Even for ads where the creative execution does a wonderful job of being inclusive and actively breaking down stereotypes, I’m willing to bet that everything from the brief, to the media plan through to the buy and the post-reporting, was pinned on demos. 

Given how established demos are in our business – as our most fundamental way to define groups, achieve scale, and measure delivery ­– how would we even begin to lessen our dependence on them? The foundations of the media process are literally built around demos to where they’ve become addictive. Assumed. Foundational. Systemic.  And so, the rising industry discussion – and our larger cultural discussion – demands we rethink the core currencies we use in media planning and buying and, how we essentially communicate to groups of people.

Strong advertising drives value to the brand but also to the consumer by providing awareness of something they may need, education, entertainment, or beyond. Data, inclusive of demographics, play a vital role in enabling this value exchange.  Afterall, demographics correlate to behaviors, attitudes, engagement, and ultimately purchase activity with a brand. And they’re prolific in their availability in buying and selling media. However, those same demos are the things that allow us to label one another and embed bias in the system.

We are blessedly moving past the era when the family is always assumed to be a heterosexual white couple where the woman doesn’t work outside the home and cooks dinner every night. But we haven’t progressed past heavy reliance on the very demographics that define most of those stereotypes and the building blocks we fundamentally found to be so oversimplifying: gender, race, ethnicity, age and income. 

True progress requires advertisers to embrace a richer approach to audiences and challenge the domination of demographics in our supply chain, beyond those that we need to ensure equity in our practices. 

This industry-wide pivot demands industry-wide discussion. And while no replacement is easy, new means of defining people must embrace certain qualities…

 Audience Definition Must Defy Dichotomies.

People aren’t a series of simple dichotomies (male/female, Black/white…) that define who they are, so stop treating and classifying them as such. We will have better outcomes if we recognize more facets of a person’s humanity. I am a white woman who bought her first home in a neighborhood that is <20% white, cherishes her lawn mower and power tools and is a mother to two amazing kids. But their dad, who can bench press more than most humans, is way better at making school lunches and could not care less about the car he drives. (It’s a 13-year-old minivan, by the way.) The depth of who we all are defies dichotomies and transcends checkboxes. This is reflected in the brands that we consume and engage with every day. So, embracing intersectional depth of profile is critical – but even this aforementioned depth has a demo component. So, let’s dig deeper...

Audience Definition Can Use Demos as a Layer – Not as a Leader.

As we move beyond dichotomies, and also for the purposes of equity, demographics may still play a role.  However, advertisers should use demographics as a secondary, multi-variate layer within their audience definition. Allow the demographics to help describe and understand instead of to define. As well, wherever possible, we should use our demographics for inclusion, not exclusion.   

Audience Definition Must Incorporate Attitudes and Behavior

To allow demographics to take a back seat, we must define audiences by how they behave, what they need, and how they think.  The side benefit is getting a deeper sense of who they and how, as advertisers, to best reach and communicate to them. It’s more difficult, sure, but like many things that are hard, the rewards are also great.  We’ll reduce waste and bias in media spend and see greater effectiveness and efficiency. 

The more advertisers demand an audience-based approach in their plans, buys, and guarantees, the faster the industry will mature toward its potential. We must make these changes to better recognize humanity up and down the supply chain. Beyond the allocation of budgets to diverse media, this means committing to starting our briefs with a more robust audience definition and pulling that strategy through.  This means we skip the domination of one or two demos.

 As media professionals, push on the larger sea change that’s necessary here.  Not only will it improve media effectiveness, it’s the right thing to do – fundamentally reducing bias and the volume of “-ism” in our media ecosystem.

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