There are two very noticeable constants that connect the 60’s advertising world of Mad Men to the modern ad agency: 1) the actual agency names, which are mostly still around, and 2) the permissibility of flagrant and often pejorative stereotyping as a means of doing effective business.

“Oh, we’ll give them this new thing, and they’ll all love it. They always do.”

I went to school in the time of the political correctness movement, and then finally settled in a career involving mass segmentation – which is to say, professional pigeon-holing.  So I now do for a living that which was impressed on me by my teachers and “bad” and “wrong.”  I’m just lucky, I guess.

Now, I’m not repudiating the practice (or even “refudiating” it, for the sake of the overly-stereotyped “Mamma Grizzlies” out there!).  I actually kind of like the irony of it. We were all taught in grade school to see past common stereotypes and value each individual as a unique snowflake, only to discover that humans actually do break down into easily identifiable, quantifiable, and predictable groups.  Except we now call them personas rather than stereotypes – because we’re not in the dark ages anymore.

Is that to say that brash stereotyping always yields an accurate conclusion?  Of course not. There was a very good reason we were warned against only seeing people broad group traits: it breeds contempt and intellectual laziness.

A friend of mine who encourages my writing recently pointed me to a book review in Slate Magazine of What Women Want, by Paco Underhill.  The reviewer is mostly critical of the book, comparing it less favorably to the author’s first book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.  The latter, in the reviewer’s opinion, draws more scientific conclusions based on citations of marketing research data.

The disparity in scientific insight between the first book and the second is a cautionary tale for us.  In his first book, Mr. Underhill is a market researcher-cum-sociologist, holding up a scientifically-constructed mirror to show us our own buying habits. In the next book, he breezily rattles off “lots of gender-polarizing assumptions that we’re asked to accept on blind faith.”

That’s not to say his conclusions are inaccurate, just that they’re not backed by any apparent research. According to the reviewer, Seth Stevenson:

…the chapter on hotel rooms offers zero empirical insight. Rather, it’s based almost entirely on a conversation Underhill has with a female friend who’s a frequent business traveler. She says she prefers hotels with soft, curvy furniture, and earth tone palettes. Good to know. But this is not “what women want.” It’s what one particular woman wants.

I only just received this article, and I’m anxious to read Mr. Underhill’s first book. The Reviewer also recommends Why She Buys, by Bridget Brennan, as a source of “comprehensive, female-focused selling techniques advocated by an actual woman.”

So, what do we learn from this?

Operators in marketing and politics are professional stereotypers. We must be so by necessity, in order to craft messages with direction and focus. Do women have different buying habits than men? Obviously.  Will we continue needing to address people in a way specific to their gender, or race, or geography? Obviously.

But over time, it becomes easy to make breezy assumptions about groups of people that are less and less based in actual data. We become lazy and craft messages that show less insight.

Every group has subgroups. Conclusions can always be enriched with more detail. The moment when we believe we have our exact audience figured out within an inch of their lives is the moment we start missing important details.


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