Our report on aspiration exposes the consequences of adland’s elitism


The advertising and marketing industry has a problem. We pride ourselves on understanding and shaping people’s aspirations, but we’re kidding ourselves. It might be difficult to hear, but we don’t understand people’s aspirations nearly as well as we think we do. 

Earlier this week, Ian Murray and I published The Aspiration Window – the latest instalment in our exploration of the differences between adland and mainstream audiences. 

We find that people in our industry have higher aspirational capacity than the mainstream. In simple terms, this means that ad people enjoy greater scope for self-expression, self-actualisation, creativity and leisure. This might explain why my Twitter feed, and probably yours, has been full of people baking sourdough bread during lockdown. 

But it’s where we focus this aspirational capacity that causes a profound “aspiration gap” between us and the mainstream. People in advertising and marketing place much greater importance on what’s known as “extrinsic” motivations – money, image and fame. We’re almost twice as likely as the mainstream to say we want a high-status job and earn lots of money, and that we want to be unique and stand out from the crowd. 

The real problem is not that advertising and marketing people are different from the mainstream, it’s that these divergences are linked to a serious market orientation problem. Despite the abundance of market research, behavioural data and “insight” at our disposal, we are persistently bad at estimating the basic values and drivers of mainstream behaviour. And it’s no different when it comes to aspiration. 

Advertising and marketing people wildly overestimate the importance of extrinsic aspirations to the mainstream. Where the mainstream gives extrinsic aspirations a cumulative importance rating of 3.8 (out of 10), people in our industry estimate that the mainstream would give aspirations relating to fame, money and image a rating of 7.4.

We think a whopping 63% of the mainstream want to have their name known by lots of people, when in fact it’s only 14%. We also think 82% want to have a high-status job and earn lots of money; only 28% of the mainstream desire this. Essentially, we believe the mainstream to be far more motivated by extrinsic motivations than even we are.  

Some of you might be surprised by the extent of these findings, but we expected this. Let me explain why we continue to be woefully wrong in our understanding of mainstream audiences. Please pay attention, because there’s a serious underlying issue that the industry urgently needs to address, even though it might make you feel a little uncomfortable.

You work in an elitist industry. In fact, advertising is the sixth-most-elitist industry in the UK (Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison). Our data shows that a staggering seven in 10 of us grew up in an AB household, compared with just three in 10 of the mainstream. Quite simply, our social, cultural and economic experiences are not representative of the majority of the population. And these differences are reinforced and hardwired over generations. 

As we’ve shown with our previous research, people in advertising and marketing unconsciously experience and interpret the world differently to the mainstream. This often means that we don’t realise we’re different or that we are part of an elitist environment that is very difficult to transcend. 

When asked to rate themselves on a rich/poor staircase, people in our business place themselves firmly in the middle alongside the mainstream. When we ask them where they want to be on the staircase, they want to move about two rungs up the ladder – just like the mainstream. The average salary of someone in advertising is double the UK average. Herein lies the problem – our industry is way off in its estimation of where it is on the staircase right now. We are already near the top. 

Aspirations don’t exist in isolation – they are built from our social experiences and observations of the people around us. We all have an aspiration window, but everyone’s aspirations are determined by their social and economic status. 

So it’s really quite straightforward. We enjoy relatively privileged lives. The lack of social diversity in our industry means we don’t meet many people who are not like us. This means that adland and the mainstream are looking at the world through different aspiration windows. The divergent social and economic experiences of our industry and the mainstream are what creates an aspiration gap. Too often, advertising reflects the aspirations of the people who work in the industry and is often wide of the mark for the mainstream.

Diversity is finally making its way to the top of our industry agenda. But there remains a significant blind spot around social class. You’ll find few mentions of class and social mobility in the rapidly expanding coverage of diversity issues in our trade media. Our data shows that the way people interpret the world correlates strongly with social and economic status. So we simply can’t achieve cognitive diversity if we ignore social class.

There’s also a significant challenge here for the market research industry and the role of the “insights” it generates. In principle, research should provide the mechanism that widens or narrows the aspiration window to capture our target audience. But the persistent gaps we identify in the basic understanding of the mainstream suggest this just isn’t happening.

We mere mortals can’t magic up a new aspiration window to fit each audience we are seeking to engage. Only by building genuinely diverse and socially representative workforces will we improve our window on the world. Suffice to say, until we achieve this, we may be condemned to making the same mistakes time and again.

It’s time for our profession to act.

Andrew Tenzer is director of group insight at Reach
Picture: Jude Law in Johnnie Walker “The gentleman’s wager” by Anomaly New York



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