Rethinking the use of demographics

Stephanie Russell, chief client officer, Carat US
Stephanie Russell, chief client officer, Carat US

Human-first media metrics are essential for equitable media planning.

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

It’s time we addressed that grounding any plan with a demo means we’re assuming and ascribing like-qualities for vast groups of people. 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. Even if the creative execution is actively inclusive and breaks 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. They’ve become addictive. Assumed. Foundational. Systemic. 

But rising industry discussion, and a larger cultural conversation, demands we rethink the way we use demos in media planning and buying to 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. 

But those same demos allow us to label one another and embed bias in the system.

We are blessedly moving past the era when the family is always portrayed as a heterosexual white couple with children, where the woman doesn’t work outside the home and cooks dinner every night. But we haven’t progressed past reliance on the very demographics that define most of these stereotypes: gender, race, ethnicity, age and income.  

True progress requires advertisers to embrace a richer approach to audiences. This industry-wide pivot demands industry-wide discussion. It won’t be easy, but new means of defining people must embrace certain qualities. 

Defy dichotomies

People don’t define themselves by simple dichotomies (male/female, Black/white). So stop classifying them as such. We will have better outcomes if we recognize more facets of humanity. 

I am a white woman who bought her first home in a neighborhood that is less than 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 couldn't care less about the car he drives. (It’s a 13-year-old minivan, by the way.) 

Human depth transcends checkboxes. This is reflected in the brands we consume and engage with every day. So, embracing intersectional depth of profile is critical – but even this aforementioned depth has a demo component. 

Use demos as a layer – not as a leader

Demographics will still play a role in media buying, but advertisers should use them as just one layer within their overall audience definition. Allow demographics to help describe and understand instead of to define. And use demographics for inclusion, not exclusion.

Incorporate attitudes and behavior

We have to define audiences by how they behave, what they need and how they think to get a deeper sense of who they are and how to best communicate to them. It’s more difficult, 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.  

We need to end our addiction to demos to better recognize humanity through the supply chain. Beyond spending with diverse media, we need to commit to starting our briefs with a more robust audience definition and pulling that strategy through.  

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

Stephanie Russell is chief client officer at Carat U.S.

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