Painful Proof That Advertising People Have Lost Touch With The Public

The events of the last few days - the EU referendum in the UK and the subsequent fall-out - have been an amazing spectacle.

To be in the UK at this time is to be present and aware as history is being made, and to be a spectator and participator as all kind of human behaviour are laid bare in front of us.

I want to avoid as much as possible the central political issue (that's not really a subject for this blog) and focus on something that is – and that is the reaction of people in the advertising and marketing world to the vote to leave the EU.

The reaction of people in the advertising industry to the result was extremely telling.

There was complete shock and much outrage that the vote had gone the way it had. There was disbelief in the result - absolute surprise that so many people had voted 'out'.

And, even more interestingly, a complete disdain and contempt for those people, too.

Through media like facebook and twitter, it became clear that most advertising people were not among the 17½ million people who voted to leave the EU.

And not only that, throughout the day they became increasingly critical and insulting about those people.

They simply could not believe, and could not understand why so many people had voted 'out'. They must all be racist, or stupid, or have been hoodwinked, or fallen for the lies of the leave campaigners, was the overriding response.

This soon led to the demonising of the old, and labelling all of the out voters as some racist underbelly of the country.

It's one thing to disagree with people's views.

Another thing to violently disagree.

Another again to insult people who hold the view.

Another further to be completely taken by surprise that there might be over half of the country who, for whatever reason, hold that view.

But then it's another thing completely to not even attempt to understand why people hold that view.

And this from a group of people who are handsomely paid to supposedly understand the wo/man-in-the-street.

Let's go back a week.

In the run-up to the referendum, it was clear to us that the vote was going to be close. Although the polls were calling a narrow victory for Remain, we weren't convinced. We could see a vote where 'Leave' gets more votes than people were expecting. (Or 'OUT' as it was more often called in the real world).

We felt there was a huge groundswell of dissatisfaction out there.

That, rightly or wrongly, there was a huge amount of people who felt like their views and opinions hadn't been taken seriously, who had real concerns about the country, issues like immigration and its effects, and about the influence of the EU over the UK.

It felt to us like people were underestimating the number of these people – and underestimating their desire to vote in this referendum. And that turnout would be very high amongst those who felt like this, because of the emotion felt about these issues.

This was something that was consistently overlooked by remain campaigners, pundits and political commentators alike during the run-up to the referendum – that for a huge number of people, this was an emotional issue as well as a practical one. And that this was something that existed even before the leave campaigners harnessed it.

Of course none of this is rocket science. It just comes from looking around you at the real world, listening to what people are saying, reading what they say on Facebook, etc. Listening to friends and family on the subject.

But, the overriding reaction of most advertising people to the result seems like further evidence that they are living in their own bubble. A world of people like them, which they struggle to see past.

Worse still, they have so little awareness of the world beyond their bubble, that they are absolutely shocked and stunned when the evidence of its existence stares them in the face, their only reaction is to lash out at it.

One of the most ironic things about the whole affair is the number of planners, traditionally those in the agency tasked primarily with the official role of understanding the consumer, who were on the frontline of the disbelief and insults.

And on top of that, the utter craziness of seeing those people who have been banging on for ages about consumers making emotional decisions and not rational ones, then decrying those 17½ million Leave voters for not carefully analysing the economic ramifications of leaving the EU, and making a choice based on what they feel.

I suspect Alanis Morissette is currently penning a new version of her greatest hit even as I write this.

The problem of advertising having become too much of a polite, middle-class place with not enough diversity has been well documented, not least in our own recently published book [plug: HERE].

Not only is it primarily staffed by similar people from similar backgrounds, who think similar things, but it appears that they are becoming more and more insular, with a diminishing understanding of the real world.

How many of the adfolk of Soho and East London do a weekly big shop at a Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Lidl or Aldi?

I can't imagine it's many. And that's just a flippant example. How many really know the daily lives, worries, concerns, priorities and motivations of normal people?

They are living in their own rarified world. And this is not helping clients.

You can see examples of it all over: adfolk increasingly going on about "Consumers needing brands to have a purpose",  or "Consumers having relationships with brands".

Yes, consumers need a brand to have a purpose exactly like they care about whether someone's little Lila or Finn will be able to spend summer in the Dordogne without mummy having any admin headaches.

It is ad-world, rarified nonsense.

It seems very appropriate that, at the same time that half of advertising was sucking champagne from the corporate trough in Cannes, 72.2 percent of the UK – the second highest turnout in a national vote since 1950 – were braving the torrential rain to make their voices heard.

There's no substitute for being from and living in the real world. You can't fake it by doing a research group in a regional chain hotel every few months.

Advertising people have lost touch with the real world.

It's about time we burst their bubble.


  1. Will Sell! Sell! Towers be in the vanguard and open a satellite ethnographic office in Widnes, Rotherham or Luton? Making ads for betting shops/ apps and payday companies - the business that seem to thrive in those communities.
    It is in those categories that agencies such as Sell! Sell! who respect the intelligence of the customer, can excel, where others patronise.
    I do agree with your premise that advertising people, especially planners seem to have lost touch in their metropolitan echo-chambers. But quite often they are selling to people who inhabit the same world/ references or else clients who (worse) buy into the world of in-bound, content, programatic and are pushing all their budget into activity which looks good on the analytics but will never make a discernible difference to their share/ sales.
    Of course it is every individual's right to vote in the way they think is best and those self-righteous advertising types should acknowledge that (including myself). We should also acknowledge that our media landscape has changed and is now ruled by neo-liberal rather than Reithian values; we are speaking to a less-informed customers, now with arguably less disposable income to spend. Never-the-less we all have to believe that respect for the customer and the application of wit and intelligence will always win the day. A quick look at the adwatch favourites from 2015 provides a split between trashy commercialism and smart communication. Much like the referendum result and indeed the agency landscape.
    Keep fighting the good fight Sell! Sell!

  2. Hello Mr B. Be wary of falling into the trap of labelling all Out voters as people who use payday loan companies and betting shops... this is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. I know some who are far more likely to be buying premium brands and checking their investment portfolios.

    1. I'm wary indeed of labelling all out voters a people who use payday loan companies and betting apps/ shops, but at the last look there are millions of people using both. While I'd guess there is no statistic evidence of a positive correlation between (shy) Out voters and gambling/ payday, I would suggest that is exactly those people in post-industrial towns across the nation with whom advertisers (and indeed politicians) are out of touch with. With regard to Out voters with investment portfolios, I'd say that many people in advertising know/are related to them. Although I'd suggest that an Out voter with an investment portfolio is rather like a turkey voting for Christmas given the fall in the markets. Unless they are also a hedgie and relish the lack of regulation Brexit will provide.

    2. Hmm, I still think you're in danger of dumbing-down that audience more than they are in reality. We're talking about 17½ million people – they don't all live in Widnes or Luton and have an account with Wonga. There seems to be a strong temptation to box Out voters in simplistic boxes. It hasn't worked out very well so far.

      "Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another being (a human or non-human animal) is experiencing from within the other being's frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another's position."

      Empathy is one the most valuable traits in advertising and marketing. It seems in dangerously short supply.

    3. Chaps - just saw empathy i really don't think focus groups with respondents de-humanised behind one way mirrors helps. Perhaps more a more personal ethnographic approach might work, or watching a couple of episodes of the Secret Millionaire, or perhaps just taking our heads out of our phones when in public places...

      Further thoughts: Of course there are all sorts of people with a variety of demographic backgrounds who voted Out. My contention and indeed the source of much of the ire coming from metropolitan media types is that there is a cohort of people who will very clearly suffer considerably more hardship by voting Out, but who for some “emotional” reason, in the face of much rational evidence (spun so much/ contorted by half-truths "send the £350m to the NHS" ) they voted Out.

      Now i don't have any robust quant data on this but from what i've heard and read (admittedly, mostly in my biased, left-leaning media consumption) one of the reasons for voting Out was to gain a sense of control over their lives, over the decisions being made by overpaid bureaucrats.

      To have a voice.

      It is these disenfranchised people who advertisers are neglecting.
      3.9 million people voted for UKIP in the general election. How many seats did they win?

      How many second placed candidates did they have?

      Equals many frustrated people, not feeling that the system represents their sentiments.

      How many of the 17.5 million people who voted for Brexit voted for UKIP at the General Election do you think?
      Despite what has been written i refuse to believe that there are 3.9 million racists in Britain.

      Have a look here:

      The UKIP vote was split (and again i'm over-simplifying here) between traditional Labour voters in post-industrial towns, disenfranchised anti-Europe Tories and some racists.

      To conclude, i don't think advertisers need to understand the motivations or consumption patterns of racists.

      I think advertisers know a fair amount about disenfranchised anti-Europe Tories retired to seaside villages serviced by immigrants on less than minimum wage. They have investment portfolios - they are valuable consumers after all.

      Advertising people seem to be "outraged" by those UKIP/ Out voters in post-industrial towns who have abandoned/ been abandoned by Labour. I think they do understand their “emotional” motivations and they are shocked by their lack of foresight.

      Overall the debate here is not about advertising people living in a bubble.

      It’s about the diminishing power of advertising people to influence behavior. Or more accurately to provide clear facts to an electorate that is distracted and confused by politicians lack of clarity. Indeed this frustration can be proved by M&C publishing the poster concepts generated for the IN campaign, which never ran:

      Further it’s a much broader debate how the fragmented media landscape has not been replicated in the electoral system. In the digital age our current system is redundant. The fractures that we are seeing in the Labour and Conservative parties need to be reflected in choices at the ballot box. Those choices cannot be truly represented until we have a PR system. Further there should be an investigation by the electoral commission and a set of guidelines published on claims made by campaigning politicians.

    4. Well actually the debate here *is* about advertising people living in a bubble :-)

    5. True. But perhaps it's not a malaise unique to advertising people. Perhaps it's a London problem.
      Stepping away from this now (like Farage, Boris etc...)
      See you chaps next week. My agent will be in touch with my rider :)

  3. Excellent read and a point that has needed making for some time.

  4. Great post. Ad land doesn't understand the man in the street very well. They don't like the man in the street very much. And importantly they don't trust them.

  5. Sell! Sell!, excellent post. And germane to us Americans, too, who can't figure out the Trump rebellion.

    We seem, simply, to have lost our empathy. We don't understand people's fear, people's economic woes, etc.

    You might like reading this, from today's NYTimes....

  6. Thanks George, that's an excellent article - attempting to understand other people's point of view... seems such an obvious thing to do doesn't it?

  7. ...I can't think of anything intelligent to say right now except what a great post...let's have that cup of tea SOON!